Opinion: Town meeting preserves Jeffersonian Democracy
Town Meeting, it has been said, is “democracy being practiced in its purest form.” Thomas Jefferson called Town Meeting the “wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self government and for its preservation.”
In Monkton, Town Meeting is held on the first Tuesday in March and consists of a legislative session and voting by Australian ballot. The legislative session convenes at 10 in the morning and is often split into two sessions with a shared lunch in between. While in legislative session, the voters of Monkton become the legislative body of Monkton and can discuss, amend and vote on any article warned in the Town Warning. Voters can also bring up other matters under Other Business to advise on the workings of town government and take up more global matters.
It is in the process of discussion and amendment that the real power of Town Meeting is evident. Town Meeting is totally transparent and interactive. Simply by raising your hand and being recognized by the town moderator, you can directly question the decisions of the selectboard, closely examine the proposed budget with the treasurer and discuss anything in the Town Report. The answers given can, and often do, lead to further questions and discussion and a deeper understanding of the issues.
Another benefit of this discussion is that everyone hears the same questions and answers and has the same information on which to base their opinions. There is less misinformation.
Sometimes this discussion uncovers problems that the voters would like to directly address by making amendments to the warned articles. This can be as simple as changing the wording of the article or, for budgetary articles, changing the amount of monies the voters will approve. By Vermont statute, when changing budgetary numbers the amount of money being asked for can only go down.
Our state representatives often visit Town Meeting and are invited to address the voters during a short recess. They address the issues facing the current session and answer questions from the floor.
In contrast to the deliberative nature of the legislative session of Town Meeting, there is also an election where voters can cast ballots by Australian ballot. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The following articles are currently done by Australian ballot in Monkton: Election of Town Officers, any article requesting the issuance of a bond, or any article resulting in borrowing for a term longer than 5 years.
Town Meeting is, as Frank Bryan noted, “a legislature of citizens, for citizens, and by citizens” and is the heart of the community. It is direct democracy where citizens directly administer the affairs of the town. If you are lucky enough to live in a town that has preserved the tradition of Town Meeting, you should embrace it, treasure it, promote it and most importantly participate in it.
Hope to see you at Town Meeting.
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