The April 9 letter to the editor “Town meeting is a fraud” highlights the undemocratic trends in Town Meeting Day. Citizens are often not involved in the proposals that are brought up for discussion in town meeting. The father of modern democratic theory, Robert Dahl, includes “control of the agenda” as absolutely essential for democracy. That people must be able to have say over how votes are framed is indispensable.
The proposed solution to this problem is to replace town meeting with an Australian ballot. This solution is incoherent. It will not give people any semblance of control over how proposals are framed. Rather, it will take away their only tool to make changes via amendments. An Australian ballot might provide greater representation, but the proposals made by town officials will be subjected to less scrutiny, not more.
The complaint about Robert’s Rules is equally incoherent. Just because voters are not elected officials does not mean that town meeting is not a legislative process. It is. For most of history, democracy has meant that every individual has a direct say in the legislation that will affect their lives. In order for this to happen there must be an orderly process that allows everyone to deliberate, propose amendments and vote on legislation. In my town (East Montpelier), anyone can ask the moderator a question and he/she will let them know when and how to make their proposal. There is really no alternative to Robert’s Rules without scrapping the legislative process entirely.
Another issue the letter brought up about town meeting is that votes are not private. This ignores that if anyone wants a private vote, they can demand it. If a moderator ignores that request, elect a new moderator who will follow the law. Moderators purposely ignoring individuals is not a widespread problem in Vermont.
Last year, many voters passed budgets that increased their taxes. Instead of blaming town meeting, voters should ask what the real problem is. Will an Australian ballot take power away from school boards and town officials? No. Will abandoning town meeting lead to greater deliberation? No, it will not. Will voters’ paying attention to the issues that raise their taxes lead to better outcomes? Yes, it will, assuming that we have not foolishly abandoned town meeting.
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