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Editorial: Re-energizing town meeting

Will changing times continue to conspire against Town Meeting, or is there a way to re-energize this once vital Vermont tradition? That’s the question behind a front-page story in today’s issue. 
Anecdotal stories of this year’s Town Meeting are encouraging. In Starksboro, for instance, 111 residents attended a three-hour meeting on Saturday morning. There, hot coffee was available along with baked goods from the Four Winds Nature Institute, and free day care was provided in an adjacent room. The packed hall and civil discourse — an extra $7,000 was allocated to the budget to care for a community building — was testament to a town proud of its sense of community.
Statewide numbers, however, tell a less enthusiastic story. According to data published by the Vermont Secretary of State’s office, the statewide average turnout for floor votes at town meeting in 2018 was just over 8 percent of eligible voters. In towns that voted by Australian ballot, an average of 23 percent of eligible voters participated. 
Town-by-town results can vary widely depending on whether there were controversial issues to discuss, whether budgets and elected officers were voted on the floor or by Australian ballot, or whether all issues were voted by Australian ballot and the traditional “town meeting” only served as an informational meeting.
Not surprisingly, those town meetings serving only as informational meetings were greeted with the least amount of enthusiasm, while those deciding town budgets and articles from the floor, along with some elected officials, attracted the most attendance. And, not surprisingly, the smaller the town, the higher the percentage of turnout.
What’s the secret to Starksboro’s relative success? A few observations: First, it’s on a Saturday morning, so younger parents can attend (Monday nights after 7 p.m. just doesn’t work); second, hot drinks and baked goods were served; and third, day care was provided. 
The conundrum for many towns is that while there might not be much in the budget to discuss, and lacking a controversial issue, it’s still important to get together to talk about the community’s well-being and future. 
One idea could be to set up workshops ahead of the meeting to discuss topics important to the town. For example, what, if anything, might towns do to help prevent gun violence at area schools? Or has the town done everything it can to attract younger families? Is Green Up Day all it could be, and are the town’s parks and rec programs doing everything it can for the population’s health? These aren’t necessarily items to be discussed when going over a town budget, but they could draw interested people to a pre-meeting workshop who might stay for the main event.
High attendance at Town Meeting isn’t critical for the state or individual towns to function well, but it is a cherished part of Vermont for a reason: it brings communities together. That’s reason enough to try new things and learn from those who are doing it well.

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