• City Room: Has town meeting run its course?
    March 07,2013
    Adam Caira / Staff Photo

    A Middlesex resident begins the discussion about continuing funding for the Kellogg Hubbard Library during the Middlesex town meeting Tuesday at the Rumney School.

    I’m going to make a motion. I know it will eventually get a second, and plenty of discussion.

    In the end, I expect it will fail.

    My motion is this: “I move that all town and school budgets, as well as election of local officers, across Vermont be decided by Australian ballot, hereby ending the ‘traditional town meeting’ as we know it.”

    For real. Once and for all. It’s a relic, and its worn parts are really starting to show.

    I am fully aware of the role that town meeting plays in Vermont’s democratic process. I know how it is based in tradition and exemplifies community. It has been called one of the “purest forms of democracy.” I get that it is a process exclusive to New England, and demonstrates and celebrates our uniqueness. There was a good reason that Norman Rockwell included an iconic image of a man speaking at a Vermont town meeting in “Freedom of Speech” — one of his now-famous Four Freedoms.

    But Norman Rockwell’s time has come and gone, and as much as we love to cling to our sense of community, a few hours on the first Tuesday of March is as forced a commitment to our friends and fellow neighbors as writing out Christmas cards each holiday season. The act of town meeting seems to make participants feel “involved” and, for them, the reset button gets pushed for another year of good citizenship.

    That’s not enough anymore.

    Decisions are made by those who show up. That’s a really great idea. It’s truly admirable, but it’s a political theorem. Citizens need to show up well before the Town Meeting Day vote — during budget discussions and public hearings. Responsible voters do their due diligence. Anything less is simple grandstanding and theater, and usually not very good theater at that.

    Town meeting has become more of a display of our dysfunction.

    Idealists like to believe they are making the best and right decisions for their town over the course of a few hours each March. But they don’t always do that. In fact, they often undermine the hard work of town and school officials who have a much better understanding of the facts. The “old town meeting” format is too easily hijacked by generalists and angry taxpayers (many with no children in the schools).

    In truth, town meeting allows us to see exactly who’s not informed, and who’s most ill-prepared.

    Blowhards and bullies love the day. They can drag out our town meetings with the most narcissistic gestures. They enjoy listening to themselves talk rather than moving discussions forward. All they really provide is that stark reminder that the chairs or bleachers are very uncomfortable after about 20 minutes.

    Rarely is there ever a discussion on the floor of any town meeting that has not been conducted 100 times by town and school leaders in scores of meetings and hearings leading up to the vote. When you start to actually dissect the “who” at town meeting, you see the pockets of self-interest. The more accurate question that you might ask is, “why are these particular citizens attending their town meeting?”

    “It’s my duty, my obligation,” one might say. “It’s tradition; I would not miss it for the world,” another will state. “It validates our local identity.” No one ever says, “because I want to see the train wreck” or “I’m nosy” or so-and-so is “about to make a total fool of himself.”

    It does not take too many years to realize the faces in the crowd are the same faces from the year before. And the year before.

    Attendance at town meeting always is a fraction of the number of registered voters, usually around 25 percent. Part of that is the fact Town Meeting Day always is on a Tuesday. But there are other reasons. It’s not your grandparents’ town meeting anymore. It tries to be but it really isn’t.

    Most of the time, a high percentage of those people who do attend town meeting are there to make sure their interests are being served. That’s not me being cynical. It is the truth. They do not really dare to leave decisions in the hands of their neighbors.

    The meat of any town meeting — the budgets — often receives the least amount of discussion. A few token curmudgeons who have not attended any of the budget meetings (nor have the even read the town report) ask a few questions and act outraged at the costs of things. By and large, most townspeople don’t understand the ins and outs of how operating budgets, audits and surpluses work, yet the final decision is theirs. In the end, the budget comes down to one point for voters: Will my taxes go up? And that decision can be made with a paper ballot.

    More controversial decisions often leave voters vulnerable to ridicule and bullying, like what happened in Plainfield this week. Most citizens today prefer the privacy of the voting booth. And more town meeting participants would likely attend town meeting if the moderators were the well-trained, Roberts’ Rules of Order experts of yesteryear. It only takes one weak moderator to allow a town meeting to come undone, and for the ugly underside of our democratic process to start playing games and wreaking havoc on the citizen body.

    Then there is time, and how easily we decide to waste it.

    The day gets bogged down, almost immediately, especially for towns that vote on town officers from the floor of the meeting rather than by paper ballot.

    And town meeting has become a series of “committee reports” — most of which can be found within the town report (if it is done well) — and corresponding commentary. There are often impromptu announcements, but in this day and age of emails, Facebook, and forums, even more “engaged” citizens are being reached than the weak shout-out at town meeting.

    Yes, sure, there is potluck food, bad coffee, pies for charity, tables of literature on various projects and causes, and reminders printed out on bright pink slips of paper.

    But there has to be a 21st century version of this relic that still provides us with that local identity, that sense of community, local control and pride in citizenship.

    If the decision on budgets really comes down to an effect on taxes, provide an informational meeting prior to the vote. After the explanation and discussion is exhausted, leave the decision up to the voter, in a booth, alone with his or her own conclusions.

    New England is the only place where town meeting exists in the United States. And, as political science professor Frank Bryan noted in his book “Real Democracy,” it is dying one community at a time. His study, which spanned years of research, chronicles exactly why we love and hate town meeting at the same time.

    It does not take a book or a team of reserchers to tell us that the process is broken because of the tradition, not in spite of it. We need to engage along the way, vote sensibly, and move our thoughts to better, more creative ways to control our spending, regionalize our resources, and focus on growing our communities, adding value to them, and shifting them to a more sensible level of governance.

    States around us have effective county governments that centralize many of the services (public safety, dispatch, some schools) that we fret over every first Tuesday of March.

    We don’t need town meeting in order to be effective citizens. Voting — not town meeting — is the purest form of democracy; the rest, I suggest, has become some pretty bad theater.

    I’m still waiting for a second on my motion.

    Steven Pappas is editor of The Times Argus.

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