Clippings: Town Meeting traditions still vital
Twenty-six years ago, I attended my first town meetings as a reporter. I was new to the state and its Town Meeting Day traditions and was awed by the purely democratic form of government many of the small towns throughout Addison County had long embraced. In those days (not all that long ago, I like to think), many towns still held the meeting on that first Tuesday in March with potluck luncheons or early dinners as part of the community heritage.
The price of oil the town was purchasing was questioned to the penny (as in, “Hey, why are we paying 89 cents a gallon for fuel when Joe — or whoever the competition was — has it for 87 cents.”) Wages were questioned and the road budget was a hot topic at every town meeting.
Town Meeting was a way for the greater community to break bread together, then discuss — and sometimes argue — how to best take care of the community’s business. It would take hours and the expectation was for the townspeople to truly examine the budgets in detail and speak their minds on every line item in question.
Changing times have rendered most day-long meetings obsolete. Community suppers or luncheons are mostly a thing of the past. More and more hearings are held on Monday nights and votes are by Australian ballot on Tuesday, though several area towns still hold the town portion of their meetings at the town hall with a democratic show of hands deciding budget votes and special articles.
But even if town meetings have been slightly diminished in an effort to get more votes via Australian ballot, their importance is still significant.
A quick poll of the newsroom recalled several items of importance that occurred at town meetings in recent years:
• In Ferrisburgh, a few years back, selectmen were pretty sure their $250,000 proposal to build a new town office building next to the fire station would fly, but residents stood up and said no. It was too far from what they considered the village center near the school, post office, churches, businesses and existing town clerk’s office. Instead, a study committee was formed that led to the selection of the Grange Hall to be rehabbed as the new town office building — a decision that most now consider truly fortunate. And it all started with citizens standing up at Town Meeting and over-ruling the selectboard. It was an exemplary example of democracy in action.
• In Hancock last year, what can compare to the thoughtful and impassioned discussion as residents wrestled with the question of closing their school? The little town hall was packed and the town was split. Both sides listened respectfully to fellow residents. Although it could have been a moment for Machiavellian calculations, everyone seemed to speak from the heart about why they thought saving the school would save the town by re-enforcing a sense of community or closing the school would save the town by keeping it affordable to live there. Many seemed honestly concerned about the welfare of the children and where they would get the best education.
When, in the end, they voted to close the school, there was no cheering. Everyone just sagged, as if they were all deflated.
But then neighbor turned to neighbor and started talking about everyday matters and, even though the school was to be closed after a century and a half, community life started anew.
• In Middlebury, votes at town meeting have added money to the recreation budget over and above what the selectboard had recommended; voted in tax districts and added extra taxes for conservation — all of which would be seen as shocking examples of community participation in any other state.
• Another year, a group of Panton residents packed town meeting early (votes are from the floor by nomination and show of hands) and held a selectboard vote before many residents were there. The newly elected selectboard later dismissed David Raphael from the planning commission at its first meeting, notifying him by email, in what was perceived as a rude and highly controversial move. Lesson: Get to town meeting on time. One of the selectboard members was defeated two years later, and Raphael eventually got his job back.
• And this tidbit from Vergennes, which conducts little business at its annual meeting as everything is decided by Australian ballot. For the past couple of years, residents have been bringing “dessert socials” to the Vergennes Opera House from 6:45-7:15 p.m. before the 7:30 Monday night meeting. It’s not a meeting to decide vital issues, but people are enjoying the opportunity to get together and talk about town business along with personal greetings. It’s a nice touch and brings back part of that age-old town meeting tradition.
However your town conducts its Town Meeting Day business, go and be a part of the process. It’s not just important as a way to decide budget issues, moreover it gets you involved while reminding all those present how special each community is — and yet, how vulnerable each is to outside forces.