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A 256-year-old Vermont tradition at risk?

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Posted on March 5, 2018 |
By Angelo Lynn



Vermont’s iconic Town Meeting Day tradition, which has been ongoing for the past 256 years, dies without your attendance and vote.

That’s not overstating the consequence in future years, if Vermont residents choose to forego the civic duty that generations of Vermonters have long held sacred. That duty includes reading up on a resident’s town and school budgets, being familiar with special articles and bond votes, and knowing the candidates running for office well enough to make an intelligent choice.

Over the past few decades, we’ve already seen many town meetings cut from the full day schedule (half day for the town budget, then a break for lunch, and the second half of the day devoted to the school budget) to the abbreviated two- or three-hour meetings on Monday nights, or Saturdays, before voting by Australian ballot on specific issues on Town Meeting Day that Tuesday.

Noted Vermont historian Frank Bryan has estimated that about 20 percent of registered voters in the period from 1970 to 1998 participated in Town Meeting, but by 1999 the rate had dropped to 11 percent, and reports suggest that number has dropped further since then.

Reasons for the decline in participation are many: state and federal governments now hold more of the purse strings and call the shots on town and school affairs; for better or worse, Act 250 and Act 46 have undercut the role of the small town government; and voting by Australian ballot (rather than a show of hands at Town Meeting) has reduced the need to attend the meeting while still being able to cast a vote.

But the reasons to attend are still compelling.

Being at the meeting reminds us what “government of the people, by the people and for the people” means. It’s coming together to hear the arguments for and against an issue and then compromising as a group to make the best decision for the whole. It is to be part of the process, instead of being a bystander outside of it. And, increasingly, it allows the community to cast a voice on issues of state and national importance. Moreover, gauging your own opinions in a room full of neighbors, helps regain one’s sense of perspective.

If you want to be counted as an engaged resident in your community, be a part of this year’s Town Meeting. The Addison Independent published previews of each of Addison County’s 23 towns, plus Brandon, in this past Thursday’s issue that outlines candidate races, town and school budgets, special articles and bonds, as well as special highlights that may enliven your community’s Town Meeting Day meeting. If you don’t have those reports handy, they can also be found online at www.addisonindependent.com.

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As a parallel thought, while Vermonters are being pressed to defend their tradition of democracy, on the national stage the digital era has made it more difficult to decipher truth from fiction and far easier for authoritarian figures (including our own president) to control their message, especially if the leader has a partisan Congress that refuses to uphold the nation’s constitutional separations of powers, and a partisan faction of the press who give the president a megaphone to broadcast falsehoods.

Robert Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, noted those trends and warned Americans of threats to the nation’s democracy in a recent column in the Washington Post:

“The digital age, originally sold to us as empowering, could yet become the greatest threat to free thought and democracy in history. The very idea of something going viral is an expression of the mob more than of the individual. The fact that Google partially ranks search results in terms of how many other sites have linked to them reinforces groupthink, not individuality. The entire logic of the Web works toward popularity, not quality, and certainly not toward truth.

“Never before have we had to fight for democracy and individual rights as now in this new and — in some sense — dark age of technology. We must realize that the fight for democracy is synonymous with the fight for objectivity, which lies at the core of professional journalism.”

It is up to each of us as individuals to learn how to determine facts from fiction, so we reach common solutions that serve the greater good. Attending Town Meeting in person is a good place to start.

Angelo Lynn

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