Letter to the editor: Why our town meetings matter

Another Town Meeting Day has come and gone, accompanied by not only praise for a tradition handed down over multiple generations, but also questions about the viability and future of an institution which some would say has outlived its usefulness. My town of Salisbury is like many who have, in the past decade or so, moved to the Australian ballot to decide budget and town office items. Our town meeting is informational only. 

Attendance has sharply declined, though that is also true for towns who have held on to the traditional floor vote. The argument for moving to Australian ballot is that more citizens are able to vote and participate in the decision-making process. I would argue that town meeting is more than just voting on budget items. It is one of the foundations of the strong sense of community that Vermont is known for, and a place to practice some skills of democracy — civil debate, compromise, collective problem-solving — that are sorely missing in our public discourse today.

The first Vermont town meeting I attended is a vivid and inspiring memory. Living in North Carolina in the mid-1970s, a recent graduate of UVM, I was back to visit friends living in Stockbridge. That snowy March day I walked into a standing-room-only crowd in the large common room of Stockbridge Elementary School. The smell of wet wool, barn boots, and warming casseroles was in the air. Loggers, farmers, professionals, mothers with infants, young and old, with Town Reports in hand, were engaged in lively, respectful debate. Amendments were offered to motions, and then amended again. Questions were asked and opinions shared. The air was electric with meaning and purpose. 

A community of folks, brought together not by common interest but by common geography, was considering the course they would travel together, over the short term and the long term. The meeting broke for the welcome potluck meal, where discussion continued, whether over articles in the warrant or catching up after the long winter. This was followed by the work of the afternoon meeting. The experience of that day left me energized and exhilarated, with a deeper understanding of the ability of town meeting to not only decide questions of importance to a community, but also to connect, create and help to build that community.

Community is built when people do meaningful work together, whether it’s deciding on a new snowplow or charting the educational course of their children. Community is built through discussion and debate, which can sometimes be uncomfortable, but teaches the value of disagreeing respectfully and civilly. Community is built when people learn to offer suggestions, listen to other ideas, and then make choices or compromises. Community is created when people get to know each other through working together for the common good. Community is when, working together, citizens learn about each other, their differing viewpoints, needs, strengths and failings, their humanity. 

Needless to say, the town meeting is often a work in process and can be uncomfortable — I have attended town meetings that involved raised voices and harsh words, frustration and confusion. But democracy is always a work in progress, often messy, and as we have observed on a national scale in recent years, can be very difficult and frustrating. In our modern life, we are often looking for that which is easy and convenient, and town meeting is not always easy and convenient, but the institution is worth retaining and fortifying for all the lessons and practice it offers as we seek to “do democracy.”

Why not establish a Town Meeting Holiday (or even a half day)? Let the workday world have the remaining days … one day a year dedicated to democratic decision-making and community building seems little enough to ask to support self-government. 

Salisbury’s informational meeting offered childcare for several years, and towns should work to make sure that meetings are held in accessible locations. We can also prioritize adult participation. Too often we are quick to tout our rights as citizens of this country, but too often the responsibilities that sustain those rights, such as civic involvement and voting, receive less attention. We can teach students early the value and importance of civic engagement and those citizen responsibilities. (A recent piece on Vermont Public described a mock town meeting held at the Woodbury School, conducted by the Town Moderator and Town Clerk, where students had two articles to debate and decide … a grand idea!)

Town meeting attendance and participation is fading in a number of towns, for a number of reasons. If we lose town meeting, then the distinctive sense of community that makes Vermont a special place to live will also fade. It is my hope that we can work together to reclaim an institution that has served Vermonters well for hundreds of years and give town meeting, and civic engagement, the priority and support needed so it can continue to serve us, as individuals and communities and the democracy we are striving to create and live in long into the future.

Heidi Willis


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