What is the future of town meeting?

A MIDDLEBURY RESIDENT has a question at that town's meeting earlier this month.

MIDDLEBURY — On Saturday, March 2, Jeff Fortin stood to speak at Monkton’s 2019 town meeting. “How many of you here are under the age of 40?” he asked. 


About six people raised their hands. 


“In 30 years, if this continues, will we have a town meeting?” Fortin asked.


It’s a question that others in Vermont are asking, particularly in light of trends that take some voting out of the meetings and put them into voting at polls.


Fortin, 39, was referring to a pattern he’s observed over his six years of attending town meetings in Monkton. The lifelong resident and long-time property owner asked his fellow residents to reach out to the young families that are moving to the area and encourage them to attend the meeting. He said his own willingness to attend changed once he learned that town meeting was his primary opportunity to make his voice heard on matters of the local budget, which determines the property tax. 


This year, Monkton saw 107 attendees at its Saturday meeting, where the town’s budget and other items were debated and voted on from the floor. Sharon Gomez said that in her 10-year tenure as town clerk, town meeting has drawn on average, between 120 and 140 participants. 


“We try to get a head count every year,” she said.


In Vermont, attendance and demographics of attendees at town meetings can be difficult to track. Towns are not required to count, record or report the number of people who attend town meeting to the Secretary of State’s office, even if they vote on their budget or for town officers from the floor. 


And since the 1980s, more towns have elected to vote on their town budgets and elected officials using an Australian ballot system instead of voting from the floor. 


In 2019 in Addison County’s 23 municipalities, 14 towns voted on their annual budget for FY 2019-2020 from the floor of town meeting and on their elected officials by Australian ballot on Town Meeting Day, March 5. Five towns voted on their elected officials and their town budget by Australian ballot on March 5, and three towns — Waltham, Granville and Hancock — voted for elected officials and town budgets entirely from the floor. 


Salisbury residents cast their votes for the annual budget and for elected officials by Australian ballot. Heidi Willis, a resident of Salisbury for nearly 20 years and a teacher there for 30, says this practice has eroded the value of town meeting. 


“In Salisbury, the meeting is purely informational now. There is discussion, but nobody can vote or change the budget from the floor. There’s no teeth to the process anymore,” said Willis, who said that town meetings used to be “raucous.” 


Anecdotally, she’s seen attendance decline and is worried that it is only the town’s older residents who continue to attend the informational portion of the meeting: “I think town meeting is one of the things that makes Vermont the unique place it is. There’s something about the sense of community it fosters and a group of people working together for the common good and for the future.” 


Since 2017, Willis and a group of fellow concerned citizens have worked to organize childcare during the Salisbury meeting, promote a community potluck afterwards, give away door prizes to those who stay until the end and recruit community organizations such as the historical society, fire department and conservation commission to set up displays. They call themselves the “Champions of Town Meeting.”


In Starksboro, which also offers childcare and saw 111 people attend its town meeting this month, first time town meeting-goers are awarded small containers of maple syrup. In Monkton, the Monkton Book Club provides pies and at Middlebury’s town meeting, participants this year were offered handmade cloth shopping bags. At many towns, Girl Scout troops run microphones and sell cookies. 




According to Susan Clark, co-author of the 2005 book “All Those In Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community,” attendance at town meetings across Vermont has declined since the late 1960s.


Middlebury’s town meeting in 1969 drew an estimated 900 people, according to Addison Independent coverage at the time. “The biggest crowd in many a Middlebury memory” gathered to cut $40,000 from the budget in an “emotional” meeting. They also “drove the body heat temperature up so high in the Municipal Auditorium that a woman fainted.” 


Clark says over the past 30 years there have been three leading factors that contribute to attendance at town meetings: the size of a town, whether a contentious issue was on the ballot in a given year, and how much of the process was decided by Australian ballot. 


Of those factors, voting by Australian ballot was the biggest predictor of voter turnout, with towns that decide the majority of their meeting by Australian ballot seeing lower turnout.


To write the book, Clark and co-author Frank Bryan, a now-retired political science professor at UVM, analyzed 30 years of data collected by students at UVM’s Town Meeting Project, an ongoing research initiative now headed by Center for Research on Vermont Director Richard Watts. Since 1969, students have attended and collected attendance data annually at thousands of town meetings across the state.


“One of the trends we’ve seen is that we have much better attendance per capita in small communities, regardless of the median income level,” said Clark, adding that whether the ballot contains a hot topic is also a leading determiner of how many voters will attend.  


According to Watts, no formal data exists regarding the ages of town meeting attendees, however, of the more than 100 students he sent to 30 town meetings across Vermont last week, many reported being some of the only young people in attendance. 


“A few said they were called out and offered applause,” Watts said. 


Since 2013, the Vermont Secretary of State’s office has issued town clerks an annual survey regarding town meeting, due back to the state within 60 days of issuance. 


According to the results of the survey issued in 2018, of Vermont’s 255 towns, 112 conducted voting at town meeting by a combination of Australian ballot and floor vote, 77 used a floor vote exclusively and 45 voted exclusively by Australian ballot. Data for 2019 is due later this spring.


According to former governor and Secretary of State Jim Douglas, who retired as Town Moderator this year after serving in that capacity for 33 years, voting by Australian ballot has advantages and disadvantages for Vermont communities. (Watch our interview with Douglas in the video below.)


“There are three categories of items that can be decided by Australian ballot: election of officers, the budget, and public questions,” said Douglas, adding that higher voter participation is an observed advantage of relegating a decision to Australian ballot but, “What is right for one community may not work for another.” 


In a survey emailed to newsletter subscribers and shared on social media by the Addison Independent during the week after Town Meeting, 47 percent of respondents who had not attended a town meeting recently cited their ability to vote by Australian ballot in their town as the primary reason. Thirty percent cited work or lack of childcare as their reason for not attending meetings, while 40 percent of the 143 respondents said they had attended six or more town meetings in the past 10 years (71 percent of respondents reported their age as 55 or older). 


In his years as moderator at Middlebury’s meetings, Douglas recalled the most exciting meeting he ever moderated was the Middlebury school district (now part of Addison Central School District) meeting about 20 years ago, where voters elected to decide the school budget by Australian ballot. “Nearly 800 people showed up for this meeting,” recalled Douglas. 


“I think that town meeting is a great tradition. At the end of the day, it makes every voter a legislator for one day… it’s the ultimate check on our elected officials, and sometimes that check is exercised quite vigorously,” said Douglas this week. “There is a certain cumbersomeness to the process, but it also shows a kind of respect for the people.” 


Heidi Willis said she hopes to see attendance rise at Salisbury’s meetings: 


“We need these meetings. Of course you get the mundane, but then you have to deal with the deeply meaningful: your kids’ education. If we have a model and a place where you can learn to be civil and respectful within your own community, that broadens out into the wider culture and informs our national discourse. I think we are losing that.”


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