Open government

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(HOST) Commentator Helen Labun Jordan spent the spring observing the Vermont legislature as a student intern at the Lake Champlain Committee. Now, with the session ending and her internship complete, she has these thoughts on what it taught her.

(LABUN JORDAN) Vermont has built its government around the goals of accessibility and openness to all citizens. Our legislators spend only a few months in the state house. The rest of the year, they are back home in the communities they represent.

During the session, visitors to Montpelier have a chance to share their opinions directly with senators and representatives. Organiza- tions take turns reserving space in the state house for displays that show their work. Most legislators will stop to learn more. If free food is involved, they may stop three or four times before lunch. All committee meetings are open to the public and indiv- idual meetings occur on request throughout the day.

This system asks a lot of our legislators. We want a state governed flawlessly, but we don’t want anyone to make a pro- fession out of it. We don’t give legislators the benefit of a staff to research policy issues; instead we ask that they make their contact information available so that we can all provide guidance. We don’t supply any offices in which to conduct business; bus- iness belongs in public places where everyone can participate. We trust that, as more people join in the legislative process, our laws will get better.

I spent the last semester watching this theory play out as part of my graduate studies at UVM. After years of paying professors so that I could listen to them, I was more than ready to be surrounded by people elected so that they could listen to me.

It wasn’t long before I heard a common state house complaint that applied to me as much as to anyone else: when I say that I want someone to listen to me, what I usually mean is that I want them to agree with me. It’s true. I want to have policy solutions so perfect that to hear them is to support them. But the problem is that good policy comes from discussion and revision done by people who spend a lot of time not agreeing with each other.

Citizen participation forces us to recognize the flaws in our ideas through the context that it provides for disagreement. I can no longer simply dismiss the criticism of people who oppose what I support, not when I’ve begun to know these same politicians as fellow citizens who also want the best for our state. And I’ll never find anyone who thinks exactly like me. The more opportunities we have to talk with our elected representatives, the more opportun- ities we have to discover both where we agree and where we differ.

Vermonters do have a voice in government. But for that voice to be effective, we have to hold productive conversations, engage in true debate and accept that listening is not always the same as agree- ing. Legislators may be responsible for maintaining an open gov- ernment, but we are all responsible for using that openness to make good policy.

This is Helen Labun Jordan from East Montpelier.

Helen Labun Jordan is a graduate student in community development and applied economics at the University of Vermont. She spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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