Monkton opts to move town meeting; keeps voice votes

MONKTON — Monkton residents took a stand for what they called the town’s democratic traditions in two ways: one, by moving the date of their town meeting in hopes of drawing more people; and two, by voting down two articles that would have changed the method of deciding several articles from voice vote to Australian ballot.
A proposed article on this year’s warning would have moved the date and time of the annual meeting from 10 a.m. on Town Meeting Day, to 7 p.m. the evening before.
Kristen Farrell, who teaches at Mount Abraham Union High School, supported a more convenient time. Farrell said she teaches her students how Vermont’s town meeting tradition is rooted in colonial times, and thus should be preserved. She said over time, participation in town meeting in Monkton and across the state has decreased, due in part to the difficulty many residents have attending the meetings.
“When I first started it was a vacation, town meeting was a day off, because people recognize how important this process is,” Farrell said.
She made a passionate speech in favor of preserving the self-governing tradition that town meetings afford Vermonters.
“We have children coming up not recognizing what power we have through this process,” she said. “If we don’t teach this, if we don’t value it, it will go away.”
Farrell worried that fewer people would have time to go to the meeting if it were held on Monday evening. Jeff Thorton agreed, and offered an amendment to move the meeting to Saturday at 10 a.m.
“We are not afforded (town meeting) day off by our state government anymore, and many businesses don’t allow it,” Thorton said, explaining why he thought Saturday would be better. He added that schoolchildren would also have the opportunity to be exposed to town meeting.
Selectboard chairman Stephen Pilcher said if the meeting were held on Saturday instead of Tuesday, there would be more room for citizens since part of the space — the gym at Monkton Central School — would not need to be cordoned off for voting booths. Residents by voice vote approved the amendment and then the amended article.
Later in the meeting, they rejected an article that would change the method of voting on town budget articles to Australian ballot, and another that would change the method of voting on public questions to Australian ballot.
A common theme on those discussions was the belief that if articles can’t be amended or decided during the meeting, there is little reason to show up.
Roger Wallace said the reason he believes few people attend the Monkton Central School annual meeting is because residents can’t vote on or amend the budget then. Conversely, he reasoned that the town meeting remains popular (it was a standing-room-only crowd on Tuesday) because it allows voters to have that power. A Saturday vote, Wallace said, would increase that attendance further.
“By moving to a Saturday and maintaining the voting on our budgets, we’ll have a much better attendance, because we’re actually doing something,” he said.
Pilcher said moving to Australian ballot for those money items or public questions would take the meaning out of town meeting.
“Town meeting means that we get to come together. It’s totally transparent,” Pilcher said. “Voting by Australian ballot would rip the heart out of everything that is Monkton, and town meeting would die.”
Melanie Peyser, a prominent opponent of the Vermont Gas Systems pipeline through the town, said that if public questions were moved to Australian ballot, a vocal, non-binding stand such as the one townspeople took against the pipeline at last year’s town meeting would be impossible.
Both articles failed by a large majority, and townspeople will thus continue to conduct all business, except electing town officers, from the floor of town meeting.

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