Publisher’s note: At day’s end, Vermont town meeting is about three things; 1) upholding the principle of direct democracy at the local level; 2) embracing the process of shared public deliberation; and 3) embodying citizen participation in the legislative arena.
And now, some 2018 reflections on Vermont’s town meeting tradition.
Congratulations to every Vermonter who took the time to attend their annual TOWN MEETING this week.
You’ve helped preserve what retired UVM professor of political science and town meeting expert researcher Frank Bryan called “a space for communal liberty.”
Voting in the town of Waitsfield with a pencil and paper ballot, not a corporately-owned voting machine with proprietary software unaccountable to either the public or the individual voter / citizen. After our 7 pm polling place closes, our paper ballots v are counted in full public view by locally elected boards of civil authority.
Even here in Vermont, we often hear our town meeting referred to as a “quaint tradition” hearkening back to a simpler, more rural past, a bygone appendage that maybe we no longer need in the “modern age.”
Such nostalgic language ignores the radical decentralist nature of our annual town meeting, where property-holding tax paying citizens of our Vermont towns have an opportunity AND an obligation to shape their town’s destiny, and acknowledge and reaffirm their communal obligations to one another, even as they sometimes disagree. Town meeting isn’t just about voting. Town meeting is about being present with one another in a shared space – a place where we “exchange electrons,” as the quantum physicists would say – to reaffirm our shared bonds with and obligations to one another. “A space for communal liberty.” At our town meetings, every citizen isn’t just a voter. Every citizen is a legislator, endowed with the power to shape legislation from the town meeting floor, and as such, a participant in crafting the destiny of our communities.
Waitsfield select board pauses in the midst of town meeting while our state elected representatives – Maxine Grad and Ed Read – update citizens on governance from Montpelier’s Golden Dome.
Such work is not always very sexy, or fun, or easy. But it is VITAL.
In a 21st century age marked by fake news, social media surveillance, voter apathy, voting fraud, behavioral microtargeting, rampant cynicism, and general mistrust about just about everything, our annual town meetings call us together to remind us, as neighbors living in shared public spaces, of the power of small “d” democracy and the importance of recommitting to the care of one another and our commons – through the work of our town committees, select boards, school boards, road commissions, recreation and conservation organizations, and the sometime hard work of looking each other in the eye.
Yesterday, at Waitsfield’s town meeting, a spirited debate ensued about whether or not we as a town should add back into our budget a $10,000 contribution to our town’s conservation fund, which our conservation commission had recommended, but our select board had removed as a cost containing measure in a tight budget year. One of our citizens made the motion from the floor to add back in the $10,000, speaking to the entire assembled about his reasons for doing so.
Our 2018 Waitsfield town meeting reports and agenda, complete with edits and a paper ballot, both vital to the deliberative process
Several citizens rose to speak in favor and against the proposed motion – all of them thoughtful, eloquent, and reasoned. As the debate unfolded, seven individuals called for a paper ballot, and so we conducted a paper ballot vote on the proposed amendment to the budget (YES or NO) which passed by a vote of 57 to 43, bringing our total budget from $1,871,456 to $1,881,456 – an increase of 4/10 of a cent on every $100 assessed in property tax.
Debating the merits of the $10,000 motion on the town meeting floor.
I relay this story here to highlight how the town meeting process works – a process that sometimes can be slow, cumbersome, and messy – but every citizen in attendance has the opportunity to “see how our town machine works,” and more importantly, participate in the shaping of our town’s destiny.
I know what you may be thinking. $10,000 in a nearly $2 million town budget may not seem like much – but at day’s end, Vermont town meeting is about three things; 1) upholding the principle of direct democracy at the local level; 2) embracing the process of shared public deliberation; and 3) embodying citizen participation in the legislative arena.
Vermont Town Meeting. A “space for communal liberty.” May it always be so.
Vermont Town Meeting Multimedia News Coverage: