Editorial: Town Meeting: the crux of the matter

Is Vermont’s Town Meeting threatened by a waning interest? Is meeting as a collective body and talking face-to-face about town and school budgets just too much to ask in an era of never-ending posts on social media?
These are valid questions to ask as towns across Addison County and the state gather to address the annual issues that have been at the heart of Vermont’s Town Meetings for the past 257 years. It was March 1762 when Bennington held its first town meeting — a decade and a half before Vermont would become the 14th state — and since then the role Town Meeting plays in civic life has changed enormously.
At its start, much of a town’s business was local, with the state and federal government roles secondary. Today, with the state playing the predominant role in education funding, the federal government playing a bigger role in highway and school funding, and school districts being consolidated into larger single entities, a common refrain is that town residents have less sway over how to spend taxpayers’ money. True enough, but there are plenty of decisions to make and issues to discuss that keep local town and school government critical.
More to the point of Town Meeting’s demise, however, is that more and more of the action (the actual voting on school and town budgets, plus the election of key board positions and bond votes) is being done by Australian Ballot on the Tuesday following Town Meeting. If a voter feels confident he or she understands the most important issues, knows how and why they are going to vote, then why bother spending an hour or two at a Saturday afternoon or Monday evening meeting? Why not, as many other states do, just vote and be done with it?
Here are two reasons:
• Attending Town Meeting with 50 or 100 or 250 fellow residents — in which you discuss the broadest scope of town governance, or the most intimate details — builds a closer bond of understanding and commitment to your community. It’s the conversation that builds trust and respect among each other, not an anonymous paper ballot.
• Assuming any voter knows everything about the issues is a bold assumption. Town Meetings or annual school meetings often double as informational hearings on the upcoming votes; it’s where residents ask selectboard members about controversial issues, and hash out the various ways a town can move forward. And it’s during the discussion about how to move forward that ideas percolate and better practices evolve. Take that away and you’re left with boards posting “yes and no” questions to residents with little creative progression that helps towns and schools become stronger.
But let’s think about that: if the problem is community bonds are weakened as Town Meeting attendance wanes, and towns fail to tap into the creative juices of community members, what other ways could those shortcomings be tapped?
Perhaps we could hold community online questionnaires, or contests for the best ideas on a particular issue? Maybe we could host a series of meetings on the town’s crucial issues at the local library and post them on community television, or YouTube? Maybe the local newspaper could write stories about every issue, and discuss the pros and cons with elected town officials? Or just maybe we could carve out one day out of 365 for citizens to devote a collective effort to make their towns that much stronger and vibrant.
Oh. That would be Town Meeting. And that’s the crux of the matter: It takes effort to make wonderful communities; not a lot, but at least a little once a year. Go, if you can; it’s not the 257-year tradition that’s important, it’s the ideas and the camaraderie you share that makes a difference.

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