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Opinion: Australian ballots short-circuit a Vermont tradition

The adoption process for the ID-4 (Mary Hogan School) budget is an excellent example of a non-problem which does not need to be fixed.
The Mary Hogan board presents the budget in detail at its annual meeting on the second Wednesday of April and the attending citizens adopt itby voice vote after as much discussion and amendment as necessary. All Middlebury voters may participate and a paper ballot may replace the voice vote if a few attendees request it.
The procedure is exactly the same for adopting the annual Middlebury budget at town meeting. Though town meeting draws a much bigger crowd than the Mary Hogan meeting, the typical turnout of 200-300 is still a small percentage of eligible voters passing a budget several million dollars larger than Mary Hogan’s. If we are to change to budget approval by Australian ballot simply in order to increase voter numbers, why don’t we begin with the town budget? 
The rationale for changing to budget adoption by Australian ballot is the same in both cases: More citizens will vote if they are not forced to attend a meeting to do so, especially if they can vote on the town budget, the high school budget and the elementary school budget at the same time. Though this is true, it also means that citizens may vote on the budgets without learning anything about them, increasing the likelihood of rejection, in which case the budgets must be revised and submitted for an expensive revote, possibly several times, with no clear guidelines for those who formulate them.
Australian ballot may be a commonway of adopting a budget, but it short-circuitsthe unique Vermont town meeting tradition, which brings members of a small community together to discuss and forge agreement on important matters of common concern. The assertion that it is too difficult for voters to attend an annual evening meeting or think about a school budget in April, or that it is too intimidating to express one’s opinion in public, even by a simple aye or nay vote, or to request a paper ballot — a request which is almost always supported — insults voters’ intelligence and infantilizes them. 
The voters elect the Mary Hogan board, which prepares the school’s budget with great care, internal deliberation and concern for both the students’ needs and the community’s financial resources. Board members have expressed interest in finding ways to boost attendance at the annual meeting, such as providing child care or arranging bus transportation. While greater participation is certainly desirable,our guess is that mostvoters simply don’t feel the need to attend: They are very proud of the school, trust the board and consider the budget a reasonable and necessary expenditure.
Public meetings where all voters may discuss, amend and approve town and school budgets, where all citizens have equal power to question proposals, suggest modifications and debate issues are the most democratic institutions we have.We should work to strengthen them and not be talked into abandoning them.
Michael and Judy Olinick
Middlebury

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