Town Meeting ’08

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(HOST) Commentator Frank Bryan is a writer who teaches political science at the University of Vermont — and an expert on Town Meeting.

(BRYAN) Even in the midst of a Presidential election – indeed, perhaps because of the current Presidential election, face-to-face decision-making by citizens in their town halls assembled is surely at the heart of Americans’ dearest democratic dreams.

But here in Vermont real democracy is not a dream. It’s a reality… called town meeting.

It is not pure. It is not always pretty. But it bestows upon those who practice it the ultimate compliment a secular civil society can bestow.

Ordinary people can govern themselves.

We live the dream.

And yet some Vermonters are giving it up.

More and more Vermonters are voting to replace the open, face-to-face deliberative process, which is the heart and soul of town meeting, with the cold, impersonal confines of the polling booth, where decisions are made on paper and limited to a few "yes-no" decisions.

The "deliberative" part of town meeting is held at another time and is often called an informational meeting.  Now, I understand that in today’s busy world the convenience and theoretical inclusiveness of voting by Australian ballot sounds attractive. And I agree that, no matter what format your town follows, it’s important to participate. But therein lies the rub – because over time (usually a very short time) these informational meetings dry up.  

Last week I went to such an informational meeting in a small town in northern Vermont. In my study of over 1500 town meetings, this town had  – in the past – one of the most successful histories of attendance, deliberation and decision of all the towns I studied. Moreover, it conducted the single best meeting of the 1500.

Then, several years ago the town voted to put the warning on the ballot and hold an information meeting on a weekday night so more could attend.

And this was the result – it was the worst town meeting I have ever attended.

The attendance was dismal.

The moderator begged for participation. But, compared to real town meetings, there was almost none.

Let me tell you: There is something tragic and eerie about the silence that follows when the moderator goes from article to article without a murmur from the floor – and when the words "all those in favor – all those opposed" are never heard.

The only meaningful participation from the people came at the end of the meeting, when a citizen arose to suggest that the town return to the traditional town meeting, because, he said, with a quick sweep of his hand across the room, "this is not democracy."

And the citizens who were there? They enthusiastically agreed and applauded their support.

You see, they were the ones that had always attended town meeting in the past. And they were lamenting their loss.

Real, deliberative, legislative democracy without decision, is like sex without completion. It’s unsatisfying. And worse (to extend the metaphor) it tends to discourage participation.

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