Op/Ed

Editorial: A pilgrimage of civic duty

ANGELO LYNN

In the wake of this year’s Town Meeting, we scan the landscape and see satisfactory outcomes. School and town budgets were largely passed despite larger than normal increases. Local decisions were made thoughtfully, and most were progressive — making life better for the greater good. With many Town Meetings held in-person for the first time in three years, the mood was more upbeat and celebratory. Tough issues were discussed, but hugs and handshakes were also exchanged.

All’s not peachy, of course. 

Town Meeting still draws a meager percentage of town voters to decide town and school business. Hybrid models that incorporate informational meetings one day, with some votes on the floor, and Australian balloting the next attempt to increase voter participation, but often fall short on both accounts.

No model works as well as our ideal: 60-plus percent voter participation along with a vibrant discussion of the issues, and time spent sharing community spirit. 

The numbers show how far from that ideal we are: Bristol’s Town Meeting, in a town of 4,000, drew about 75 voters to decide key questions from the floor, while a little over 400 voted via Australia ballot on the biggest issues the next day. Middlebury, with a population over 8,500, had about 100 residents deciding in voice votes a town budget of almost $13 million, as well as shifting about a half million dollars from the Cross Street Bridge Reserve Fund to other needed causes. Australian balloting the next day saw about 1,200 residents vote on the district school budget and candidates for office, while foregoing the decisions on the town budget.

Smaller towns often have a much higher turnout per capita. In tiny Goshen, about 59 people came to the town meeting, while 119 residents voted by Australian ballot the next day, in a town with a posted 2018 population of 162. Hard to top that. (What brought Goshen residents to the meeting is worth reading in the Town Meeting results in today’s Independent.)

In Lincoln, population about 1,300, a civic-minded group of about 70 residents decided most of the town’s business at Town Meeting, while also epitomizing the essence of Town Meeting through many comments. 

“We picked the theme ‘community’ for our town report this year, and I just started thinking about how grateful I am for all the people who contribute to making our town government run,” Lincoln Town Clerk Sally Ober said at the March 6 meeting. Town Moderator Todd Goodyear added some sweetness to the meeting by handing out bottles of maple syrup to Lincoln’s new residents attending Town Meeting for the first time and singling out long-time residents who have attended Town Meetings for decades. 

Lincoln resident Christie Sumner added that new residents were really stepping forward to get involved. “They’re coming on our boards and they’re helping out because that’s what they see as their responsibility to this town. So, thank you all,” she said.

The town’s openness to new ideas might be a reason for such involvement. “If there are ideas you have that you’re passionate about and there’s not a board that exists or there’s not a place for you to implement your skills or your interests, just bring it forward,” said selectboard member Bay Jackson. “There’s so much room, there’s so much that can happen, and this is a very motivated and supportive community. So, bring it forward!”

Such enthusiasm and community spirit warms the heart of any Town Meeting aficionado. But is such enthusiasm enough?

In the perennial post-Town Meeting flogging over how to get more voter involvement, moving away from in-person gatherings like Lincoln’s would kill the golden egg that Town Meeting represents. But even Lincoln recognizes the problem and community members were busy discussing how to get more citizens to Vermont’s annual pilgrimage of civic duty.

The key may be in accepting the importance of the struggle to reach an ideal, and not being content until we do.

Angelo Lynn

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