Preparing for Town Meeting

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(HOST) Communtites around Vermont are beginning to prepare for Town Meeting, and commentator Ellen David Friendman reflects on what topics may come up for debate.

(FREIDMAN) In 1939 the world was plunging into darkness – war, economic chaos and a genocidal fury aimed at the Jews of Europe. America would not enter the World War for another two years, but many Americans – living lives that were essentially stable and safe – must have nevertheless thought, perhaps with some desperation, “Isn’t there something we can do here to make the world safer?” One Vermonter clearly thought there was.

In 1939 Dorothy Canfield Fisher gave us a book that illuminated the slender and incomparably powerful relationship between Vermont Town Meeting and large world problems, a relationship of renewing importance…as clear today as it was then. On the first page of Fisher’s novel, titled Seasoned Timber, we find the principal of the local academy – one of those public/private schools so common throughout Vermont at that time – reading a newspaper account of recent anti-Semitic brutalities under Hitler which leaves him with “a familiar feeling of guilt over the passively accepted safety of his own life.”

The focus changes and we enter the fictional town of Clifford, where the threadbare academy is barely able to keep its doors open. Then, a miracle: a one million dollar gift is offered by a former student who’s had great success on Wall Street. Only one small condition is attached – that the academy will no longer enroll Jewish students. This is of little practical impact since, after all, hardly any Jewish families find their way to this tiny Vermont town. It seems to be no real obstacle. But then we learn that the academy is governed by a local board, and that that board is directed by the citizens through a Town Meeting, and that these citizens will vote in Town Meeting on whether to accept the gift and its condition. So, democracy ensues.

Self-interests are defined. Some have a simple need to keep the school open at any cost, others to keep taxes affordable and some are pulled to defy anti-Semitism and, by proxy, Hitler’s fascism. Many just want to avoid controversy. The debate unfolds, the vote is taken, the poisoned gift is rejected and one small Vermont town yokes itself to the largest historic struggle of its day.

Sixty-five years later, we’re wondering collectively about Town Meeting. Some town officers feel ballots are overloaded with items of non-local concern: whether to ban genetically modified foods; whether Vermont National Guard should be deployed in Iraq; or whether we want a single-payer health care system. Do these questions matter to us? Are they too big for us to vote on? And, if not at Town Meeting, where do we go to tell our government how to behave?

For better or worse, this is the one venue that brings us together in our diverse politics. No other voice is so powerfully pluralistic, no other voice so credible.

I’m Ellen David Friedman of East Montpelier.

Ellen David Friedman is vice chair of the Vermont Progressive Party and has been active in the labor movement for 25 years. She spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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