Unintended consequences of democracy at work

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(Host) For those communities currently debating the effectiveness of traditional Town Meeting, commentator Edith Hunter has a cautionary tale from her own town of Weathersfield.

(Hunter) Until 1969, town meetings were all day affairs, held in March at the Meeting House. In 1969, the meeting moved to a school, to accommodate the crowds. Still an all day meeting, town and school matters were intermingled. For the first time, town officers were elected by Australian (that is, secret) ballot. All other matters, including budgets, were voted from the floor.

The following year, the polls were open on Town Meeting Day from 10 until 6 pm to vote by secret ballot on three articles: the election of town and school officers; whether to inaugurate the Town Manager system (we did); and whether the Road Commissioner should be appointed by the selectmen rather than elected (the selectmen option won). At 8:05 p.m. the meeting was reconvened and the result of the secret ballots announced. Then the 28 Articles of town and school business, following discussion and amendments, were decided by voice vote. The meeting was well attended, exciting, and adjournment came at 10:45 pm.

Article 22 passed. It authorized the town to hold the Annual Meeting on Monday evening to transact any business not involving voting by ballot. Voting would be the following day, the first Tuesday in March. After 1971, school matters were usually dealt with first at the Monday night meeting, followed by town matters. Meetings sometimes lasting beyond midnight as articles, including budgets, were discussed, amended, and finally passed. Attendance was still good.

Because the meetings were lasting so late, in 1985 we voted to hold a separate Monday night School Meeting, a week prior to the Monday night March Town Meeting, with all voting the next day. The following year we voted that both town and school budgets should be by Australian ballot. The intention was to give people who did not attend the informational meetings a chance to vote on the budgets. The unintended consequences of our democratic votes have been smaller attendance at both informational meetings and a larger number of uninformed voters on Tuesday.

By 1991, the School Meeting was being held in May so that state aid figures would be in (which they often are not). This necessitates the added cost of printing two separate reports. Budgets are up astronomically, but they can only be voted up or down, not amended. And citizen participation is down. We could probably go back to a single Monday night informational town/school meeting up at the Meeting House, since nothing really important can be changed and few people attend.

This is Edith Hunter on the Center Road.

Writer and historian Edith Hunter lives in Weathersfield Center, Vermont.

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