There is more to town meeting than what appears on the warning.
Year by year the warning of a town serves as a kind of barometer of the town’s weather. There are those stormy days when our town warnings contain small typhoons of controversy embedded in personal animosity and differences of outlook going back for years. And there are sunny days when storm clouds are absent, the budgets are balanced and people are interested mainly in the apple pie.
The broader world is an overlay of the local weather. It often happens that controversy, national or international, sweeps in as on a jet stream and captures the imagination of townspeople. If they gather enough signatures on a petition, they can have an article placed on the warning to tell the world what their little town thinks about a given issue.
In years past, Vermonters have weighed in on everything from a nuclear weapons freeze to war in El Salvador. This year some Vermonters will be asked what they think about a pipeline in northern Vermont that may be employed to transport oil squeezed from the tar sands of Alberta. A lot of people think the tar sands should be let alone, but others understand that the oil is going to be exploited and blocking its transport is an exercise in futility.
The underlying question: Should we make the exploitation of oil more expensive through obstructionism or less expensive so Canadian oil can replace Arabian or Venezuelan oil? The larger issue is climate change, about which Vermonters received a harsh lesson two years ago from Tropical Storm Irene.
Apart from airing the particular issues of individual towns, town meeting serves to validate the daily functioning of democracy in Vermont. Our town reports show the work of select boards, auditors, planning commissions, treasurers, clerks, school boards, principals — all the people at the grass-roots level who do the work of democratic self-governance. Most townspeople are probably happy not to have to delve too deeply into the details of town finance, trusting that our town officials know what they are doing. But if there are questions, the town business is offered in detail for our scrutiny, and town officials are accountable to the voters.
In the history of any town, there are periods of harmony and of dissonance. Sometimes, town leaders find they are out of sync with the voters, or voters experience frustration with town officials whom they believe to be out of touch. These undercurrents often spring forth at town meeting, and that’s a good thing. Townspeople have to learn to work out their conflicts within the context of our democratic processes, and sometimes it is messy. Hard feelings are not unknown at town meeting.
But that’s all part of the drama of human life lived in small towns where we have no one to blame but ourselves (or our neighbors) and no one to turn to but ourselves (or our neighbors) to fix our problems.
Usually, problems can be fixed more easily than we might have expected once people realize that respect, even for the person who more or less drives you crazy, is the essential ingredient of democracy, local or national. After all, town meeting is guided by a time-tested array of rules designed to restrain our selfish impulses and guide us toward resolution achieved by allowing everyone a say.
The rules of town meeting are the machinery of democracy, and everyone is subject to them. They require respect for the process and respect for fellow citizens, even if you don’t feel exactly respectful.
Even if your town is having one of those boring years — with no great battles, no looming crisis — the methodical unfolding of democracy serves to remind us that in a nation of individuals we are part of a community. This is the day we celebrate our communities by enacting their most enduring rites.MORE IN Editorials
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