More than a century ago lawmakers designated the first Tuesday in March as
a day for town meeting. Now changing times are threatening the health of this
democratic institution. What is the future of town meeting day? This hour long
documentary, narrated by VPR’s Steve Delaney, explores the rich tradition of
Town Meeting Day, its importance to Vermont life and the challenges to grassroots
democracy during changing times.
We hear from all the experts: the voters, moderators, clerks, the governor, the secretary of state, the legislature and the political scientists. And we’ll hear about the ideas that are being put forward to strengthen town meeting in the future.
First Tuesday in March Transcript
A special VPR documentary on the institution of Town
[Sound from West Windsor hall]
(Moderator) “Those in favor of Matt signify by saying Aye.”
(Delaney) Town meeting is about group decision-making. The idea of Town Meeting is as old as human speech, as old as the gatherings around a fire to discuss and decide who should be the leader, or how to plan a hunt, or whether to build a wall around the village. It was then—and still is—the most successful formula ever invented for living in peace with the people around us. In Vermont, the tradition predates the American Revolution, by decades.
(Douglas) “It’s been part of our tradition for centuries and really defines Vermont, and to some extent the other New England states as well.”
(Delaney) Vermont Governor Jim Douglas.
(Douglas) “It’s the envy of the country. I remember when I was Secretary of State, I invited some of my colleagues to come and observe Town Meeting, and to see the look on the faces of Secretaries of state from the Midwest and beyond, uh, was one of great interest and perhaps some puzzlement as well, to see if this direct democracy really works.”
(Bryan) “You learn, and you can amend and adjust, and that’s what’s key.”
(Delaney) Professor Frank Bryan says Town Meeting works, because you can affect the agenda, and the outcome.
(Bryan) “Look, most Vermonters—all Vermonters—if they want to participate in Town Meeting, can be a participant in the democratic process that 95% of Americans can only dream about. You can’t do this in Pittsburgh, or Buffalo, or San Francisco even, you can’t do it, you can be a legislator and amend from the floor, and change policy in real time.”
(Delaney) Frank Bryan teaches political science at the University of Vermont, and is the leading authority on Town Meeting as a Vermont institution. His latest book on the subject is All Those in Favor, co-authored by Susan Clark.
(Clark) “I think when people come to Vermont they sense that Vermont is special, and it’s not just the trees and the mountains. There is a sense of community that we have here, there’s a fabric, a woven fabric that, when someone goes off the road into a snow bank, we stop and pull them out. That’s how we are in Vermont. It’s a culture, Town Meeting has created a culture; just the way Colorado has a cowboy culture, Vermont has a Town Meeting culture. And it’s something that we need to recognize, and nurture, and feed. Otherwise, it will go away.”
(Delaney) Part of the reason Town Meeting continues to be a force in Vermont’s public life is the unique role of Moderator. In West Windsor, they’re pretty happy with the way Matt Birmingham has been doing the job.
(Town Clerk) “Those in favor of Matt signify by saying Aye…”
“Nay” [single voice, laughter]
“Who said that?”
“I know who said that!” [more laughter]
“Good chance of getting recognized for the rest of the day.” [more laughter]
(Delaney) Moderators tend to be perennials, if they can demonstrate fairness, a sense of humor, and the ability to keep debates on track.
(Douglas) “The legal voters of the Town of Middlebury in the County of Addison are hereby warned and notified…”
(Delaney) When Jim Douglas was elected Governor, he had been Middlebury’s moderator for more than a decade. He still is.
(Douglas) “People of Middlebury are very respectful, and they’re cordial and polite, and they listen to each other, and make decisions in a very thoughtful way.”
(Delaney) “You’re describing the virtue of civility.”
(Douglas) “I am, and I know from talking to my colleagues that’s not the case everywhere. It’s far more spirited in some other communities, but traditions vary, and I’m very pleased that Middlebury is relatively peaceful compared to some other communities.”
(Delaney) One of those other communities is Killington, where Red Glaze led his first Town Meeting in 1961. He says the occasion gives people a chance to vent.
(Glaze) “They can go to plenty of select board meetings, but they can’t get as much done as they can at the town meeting. It’s a controversial day. People are there to bring up questions and make noise. If they don’t, they might as well go home and stay in the closet. I t’s the democratic way—you get up there and say what you think. Whether anybody believes you, or cares, that’s their problem. It gives you a chance as an individual to expound on whatever bothers you. And there are issues that you wouldn’t dream of that come up sometimes.”
(Delaney) At Killington’s Town Meeting the controversial notion has come
up before that Killington ought to secede from Vermont over high taxes, and
join New Hampshire,
has low taxes. That set off some verbal fireworks.
[Citizen voices] “This is a sham… I’m tired of this town! …Good-bye and don’t come back! …Who made you President of this town? …Relax… I want you to know you’ll be voting on whether or not to move the question… Everybody vote No! …Everybody listen… You’re out of order!”
(Delaney) The calmest voice in all that was Red Glaze’s.
(Glaze) “I don’t get involved in the discussion. I just try to keep it organized. I try to spread it around and don’t get into it. Part of my job is not to get into the discussion. Sometimes it escapes me but most of the time I try not to say anything.”
(Delaney) Sometimes Red’s wife Taylor Glaze wishes the job could be done without the need to cut off debate.
(Glaze) “Then somebody’s angry that they didn’t get to speak, and they want to blame somebody so they blame the moderator who didn’t call on them, I mean it’s… And I’m sitting there, and my heart’s throbbing, and my husband is a well-respected, amazing man who’s devoted decades of his volunteer time to this town, and now somebody that doesn’t really know what they’re doing is taking potshots. It’s a little bit painful.”
(Delaney) Most Vermonters, including Taylor Glaze, believe that occasional ruffled feathers are a reasonable price to pay for the benefits Town Meeting brings. That doesn’t mean they welcome rudeness or disruptive behavior.
Miriam Nelson was the Town Clerk in Norton, on the Canadian border, for fifty three years, and she never missed a Town Meeting. But when she retired, she said she never liked it when debate became divisive.
(Nelson) “Because I like to see everyone getting along and not to bring their grievances. Sometimes in a small town they don’t mean it, but people will take it personally and then for a few weeks there’s hard feelings.”
(Delaney) Writer Susan Clark says there’s more healing than hurting in the Town Meeting tradition.
(Clark) “Five of the six New England states—which are the only places where Town Meeting is fully practiced—rank among the top ten states for civil society, and in study after study Vermont ranks either first or in the top three, so I think there’s some compelling evidence that the way we make decisions democratically, face to face, traditionally in our town meetings, there is a link between that and civil society.”
(Delaney) To a great extent the moderators are responsible for maintaining that civil society, and the best of them even earn eulogies. Here’s Vermont Public Radio commentator Edith Hunter on one of her favorites, Red Butterfield. He died in 2005 after moderating 35 Town Meetings in Weathersfield.
(Hunter) “He was someone you could always depend on, and when he said something it was correct. And if you wanted to know something, if you went to Red, he could tell you. I think we all felt that he presided as a real Gentleman. And he knew the rules. He’d taken a course in parliamentary procedure. He had led his union, he was Vice President of the CIO for the state, so his background and the work in the union helped him a lot in his work as moderator.”
(Delaney) The best moderators know
they don’t really run the meetings. The energy—and the direction—comes from
the floor, from people intent on making their points.
Many participants call Vermont Public Radio when their meetings end, to report to the larger Vermont community, what they did that day. The hot topics change over time. One year it was genetically modified seeds.
(Caller) “There was a lot of discussion about the genetically engineered foods, it was a very informational meeting that way. I thought people were talking to each other pretty directly, and it was nice to see people listening to each other and talking to each other—it’s something you see around here more than most places I’ve been.”
(Delaney) In every town, in every year, one issue guaranteed to stir the voters is the school budget. Here’s what happened one year in Jericho.
(Caller) “We got a leaflet all around town promoting the defeat of the school budget, and we had an unprecedented attendance at the school board session. And the budget was passed almost unanimously, as a result, I believe, of the effort on the part of the people that want to defeat the school’s budget, because we all came out to support it.”
(Delaney) And sometimes it’s just pure Vermont whimsy. In most towns the road crews are fair game every year, for playing mailbox bingo with their snowplows, or forgetting to scrape the roads, or fill the holes. But in Underhill one year, there were no complaints.
(Caller) “We had an interesting thing happen at town meeting this morning out here in Underhill. Many of the residents expressed that they felt our road crew’s doing too good a job—that our roads were plowed too well, and sanded, salted too well—and that perhaps we didn’t need to pave one of the roads in town because the frost heaves and potholes kept the speeders down.”
(Delaney) It’s not all budget numbers and Yankee self-expression. Almost without exception, where Town Meeting is practiced in its traditional form, there’s a break for lunch or dinner, and the spectacular harvest of country kitchens.
(Dummerston woman) “…and those are yellow-eyed beans. We put them soaking Sunday night and we put them baking yesterday, and now we’re finishing them in time for lunch.”
(Delaney) Part community reunion after the forced isolation of winter, part food festival, part civics lesson, and all Vermont. That’s Town Meeting.
(Dummerston woman) “There’s a lot of good pie-makers in Dummerston, oh there are wonderful pie-makers! Everyone is so willing, you know…”
(Delaney) Marialisa Calta is among the Vermont writers who have been drawn
to the uniqueness of Town Meeting. But as a cookbook author, her interest
is somewhat off the agenda, though centered on the event itself.
(Calta) “Pundits who wax poetic about the democratic values inherent in Town Meeting are usually talking about the meeting itself. But for another look at democracy in action, I suggest they go to the Town Meeting Lunch. There, Vermont classics like Tuna Pea Wiggle cozy up to tofu-and-soba noodles. Brownies made from a mix find themselves on the same counter with homemade seven-layer cake. Nachos share plate time with baked beans.
And if politics makes strange bedfellows, it can also be said that it makes even stranger table mates. At Town Meeting Lunch, the rock-solid conservative might be heard agreeing with the tax-and-spend liberal about the superiority of Miracle Whip over Hellmans in the coleslaw. Members of the opposition may reach consensus on the issue of raisins in rice pudding. And nearly everyone—right, left or center—can find themselves in accord when it comes to pie.
Pie is a Town Meeting staple. In Calais, where I live, there is usually an array of the basics: apple, pumpkin and pecan, as if in Thanksgiving for Town Meeting Day. There may be a rogue pie—say, lemon meringue or coconut custard—but most lunch cooks stick to the basics.
Jane Grigson, a British food writer, wrote about Christmas: “…clever food is not appreciated. It makes the little ones cry and the old ones nervous.” The same can be said about Town Meeting.
At Town Meeting, we may find ourselves divided over issues large and small. But the meeting brings us, at least physically, together. And a good hot lunch with pie for dessert is something we can all agree on.”
(Delaney) But is it a quaint anachronism, or a vibrant example of democracy at work? And most of all, what can we predict about the future of Town Meeting in Vermont? We’ll examine the problems and potentials of Town Meeting after a testimonial to the institution by Vermont musician Jon Gailmor, a moderator himself in the town of Elmore.
(Gailmor) “Even before I became moderator, I really cherished Town Meeting—the concept—and really loved the day. It’s a time to take stock of the community. You see everyone. I think it’s a microcosm of what makes Vermont special, because you really have ‘a say’ on this day. So, I decided to write this song.”
Down from the mountains, up from the dales.
In from the woodlands, chock full of tales.
Check out the neighbors. Find out the news.
That whole floor was ours today. We got to choose.
(Delaney) Back in West Windsor, they’re working their way patiently through the articles to be decided, and where they don’t like the wording, or the numbers, they make changes.
(Moderator) “…61 voted yes, 40 voted no, you have approved the amendment. [Applause] But you’re not done yet…”
(Delaney) Town Meeting is alive and well in West Windsor, in part because it’s not a very big place. A thousand people live here, at the foot of a ski slope. And in the summer they still hold bean suppers at the old Grange Hall. As communities grow, so does the pressure to change the way Town Meeting is conducted—and change is the enemy of tradition.
(Douglas) “There’s a lot of speculation that the loss of local control has eroded the level of interest in participation.”
(Delaney) Governor Jim Douglas.
(Douglas) “I guess that makes sense when you think about it. So I suppose that as more things have moved to the level of regional or state decision-making, that cuts into the reason for participating in Town Meeting.”
(Delaney) “Is that fixable?”
(Douglas) “Oh, I don’t know, it’s a tough one, because more and more seems to be centralized—especially in the school area, where the money now flows through a state education fund, and is redistributed through a complex formula—I think it’s a trend that may be difficult to reverse.”
(Delaney) Still, a librarian in Killington believes the chance for young people to have a say on such key questions as how much money to spend, must be preserved.
(Librarian) “It’s an amazing thing. You have eighteen-year-old students in our high schools who are voting for their school budgets! I mean, that’s pretty amazing, and pretty important.”
(Delaney) The recent loss of full local control over school budgets is frequently
cited as an example of the kind of change that diminishes Town Meeting. It’s a factor that author Frank Bryan says is critical to town meeting attendance.
(Bryan) “Fundamentally we’ll never get our good attendance back unless we give localities more important things to do. And it only makes sense—it’s insulting to Vermonters to say, ‘come to Town Meeting, although all we’re gonna do is just chat’!”
(Delaney) One of the other commonly mentioned stress points is the occasional culture clash between “Old Vermont” and new neighbors. Taylor Glaze of Killington, who’s not a native Vermonter, makes that case.
(Glaze) “There are people that have second homes—they’re not here, they can’t vote at Town Meeting if they’re not residents—but there are also people who have made their second homes their primary homes. They are entitled to an opinion. But I believe that people coming in as newcomers should take a deep breath and talk to some of the older people. Be respectful. Talk to the people who have lived in this town for 30, 40, 50 years, who really know what’s going on. And some of these attitudes of not realizing that we’re a cohesive community of people with different attitudes, but you must be respectful and work together to accomplish things that need to be done, not come in here with an attitude: okay I’m here now, you’re going to listen to me, I know better, I’m from the city, I’m going to tell you how it should be done.”
(Delaney) The idea that there are many voices trying to make policy seems to be healthy for Town Meeting, even if some of those voices are discordant. In Newbury the meeting once heated up when somebody used the mildly pejorative term “Flatlander” to describe a town resident born outside Vermont.
[Newbury Town Meeting] “Because he’s not a Flatlander, he was not accepted… That’s what we bring in here… You mean the past… [Groans, gavel] Gentlemen, please… What, you don’t want us to hear this? …Can I please ask that you direct your remarks to the Moderator …I was looking at you.” [Laughter]
(Delaney) It’s more common that the participants at Town Meeting try to find common ground. At a meeting in Rochester, a speaker tries to steer away from confrontation.
[Rochester Town Meeting] “We
shouldn’t get into a discussion of this now because we’re going to divide
the town into two parts, and it’s going to be very divisive.” [Applause]
(Delaney) Frank Bryan, who literally wrote the book on Town Meeting—in fact, wrote two of them—says the verbal jousting that leads to consensus is essential to the functioning of Town Meeting. And, says Bryan, it’s a resilient institution.
(Bryan) “Well it’s in pretty good shape when you compare it with other forms of democracy in America. In fact, it’s a paragon of political virtue compared to the way most people participate in politics. In fact, worldwide it is! But on the other hand, like other institutions of political participation
in the country, it’s suffering.”
(Delaney) Susan Clark was Bryan’s co-author in writing All Those in Favor.
(Clark) “Well, democracy all over is suffering. Participation—civic participation—is down all across America. Town Meeting participation is going down, that is one of the ways it’s suffering, although I would say a bigger threat is the fact that each year another
Vermont town looks at moving to Australian ballot for some part of its decision-making.”
(Delaney) “The Governor, among others, says that Australian ballot is simply a different way of conducting Town Meeting, and you think it’s pretty insidious?”
(Clark) “I do. Town Meeting is different from any other form of democracy, because Town Meeting is a legislature. Everybody who attends Town Meeting is participating in direct democracy. So when I go to Town Meeting, I am making direct decisions. We debate, we change each others’ minds, just like legislators, we amend budget, we pass budgets or we don’t pass budgets. These are actions that we are taking; we don’t represent anybody—we are doing it ourselves.”
(Delaney) But population growth and dwindling attendance have increased the pressure to change Town Meeting. Most of the changes are designed to get more people to turn out and decide who sits on the Selectboard, and how much tax money gets spent. Increasingly those decisions are made by Australian ballot. Instead of standing
up to be counted, after a chance to amend what’s being voted on, Australian
ballot limits voters to a yes-or-no choice.
What is the Australian ballot? It’s an option that’s been on the books in Vermont since 1892, but not widely used at Town Meeting until recent decades. It’s a private vote, cast in a booth, on a pre-printed ballot that can’t be modified, just like the vote in a Presidential election. Australian balloting is the solitary opposite of gathering in a Town Hall, shoulder to shoulder with neighbors to make decisions, where they can see how you voted. Its use is the most hotly debated question about the way Town Meeting is evolving, and it is detested by purists like Susan Clark because voting by Australian ballot means you can’t adjust what’s being voted on.
(Clark) “One of the biggest changes we’ve seen—and it’s increasing over time—is the use of the Australian ballot. Towns may say: ‘we’re still going to have the Town Meeting form of government but we’re going to vote by Australian ballot, instead of with the face-to-face deliberation.’ We make the argument in the book that really, moving to Australian
ballot is the death knell for a true Town Meeting.”
(Delaney) Frank Bryan expands on that idea, and explains what the writers mean when they use the term “death knell.”
(Bryan) “Now when she says it’s the death knell, she’s talking about Australian ballot for budgets and for regular issues that would ordinarily be on the warning, substantive issues. Like shall we purchase a town truck, or something like that. We’ve had Australian balloting for town officers for a long time, and that also hurt attendance, but nothing like putting the budget and all the policy issues and so on, on Australian ballot. When you do that, that’s the end of it. Towns don’t like to believe it, and they whistle in the dark about it, but that’s what happens.”
(Delaney) The difference between just voting, and attending Town Meeting, is so vivid to Frank Bryan that he makes the distinction in musical terms.
(Bryan) “I mean, there’s a huge difference! It’s like singing a song or having a song sung to you. Town Meeting is like singing the song, and Vermonters have gone to sing their songs. It isn’t always good—it’s not always in harmony, that’s for sure—but it’s real music, sung by real people instead of letting someone else do the singing. I mean, the difference between voting and Town Meeting is huge.”
guess I don’t regard Australian ballot as a departure from Town Meeting but
as a different form of it. It still allows individuals to make decisions
directly for themselves and not through the delegated power of local elected
(Delaney) Governor Douglas is a former Vermont Secretary of State. His view is in sharp contrast to that of the current Secretary, Deborah Markowitz.
(Markowitz) “The argument against Australian ballot is that while you may have higher quantity of participation with Australian ballot, you have lesser quality of democracy. At floor meetings you can have conversations with each other, you can come up with compromise. With Australian ballot it’s an up-down vote. You either say yes to the budget or no to the budget.”
(Red Glaze) “Not in this town.”
(Delaney) Killington moderator, Red Glaze.
(Glaze) “I’ve never heard anybody say… I don’t know why you have it, you’re wasting our time. I would hate to see it go to an Australian ballet, just have everybody go down and vote on something they don’t know anything about, without any discussion. I think this is the way to do it. Have people come right there. If they’re interested enough in the issues, they should come and talk about them or at least listen to others.”
(Delaney) Changing to Australian ballot is not a big issue in Killington,
but it is in other towns—especially
the ones that have grown to a size that makes the traditional floor meeting
hard to manage. About 55 communities make their annual Town Meeting decisions
the floor with the traditional voice vote following the phrase, “all those
in favor…” According to the Secretary of State, another 171 communities
use some combination of floor voting and the private ballot booth. Still another
20 communities make all their decisions by Australian ballot, and it’s becoming
a more common way to vote on vital budget issues.
St. Johnsbury—with a population of more than 7,000—is one place where the Australian ballot question has divided the town. The issue was on the ballot there a couple of years ago. Ellie Dickson was the local newspaper editor, and she called into VPR’s Switchboard program when the counting was done.
(Dixon) “It did get people talking, discussing, considering, arguing, yes. And here is our reporter—want to hear the results?”
(Bob Kinzel): Absolutely, this is thrilling!
(Reporter in distance) “Wait, it’s not official…I can give you the unofficial: 509 opposed to Australian ballot, 504 in favor, and five contested ballots. How do you like that?!”
(Delaney) When the dust settled in St. Johnsbury the town had decided by a slender margin to continue voting its budgets from the floor on Monday night meetings. On Town Meeting Day the town decides on its officers and appropriations in the privacy of the voting booth.
The dust has not settled in nearby Cabot, where they make cheese, and where they have voted six times in 15 years on the Australian Ballot issue, including once when they rescinded a vote that approved the change. That last vote to keep the traditional floor meeting was upheld in the State Supreme Court in 2005, but Cabot Town Clerk Chris Caldor thinks his town is still split on the issue.
(Caldor) “I almost would have to say it’s evenly divided—and clearly it’s not, because the votes aren’t that close—but there are people who like the traditional Town Meeting, and tradition is very important, I think that’s true in every town. But there are also folks who feel there are voters that are disenfranchised—that they don’t have the opportunity… if you’re not allowed off work, if you have some physical…we’ve had people say, ‘You know I just can’t sit there that long.'”
(Delaney) Secretary Markowitz says new technology might allow Town Meeting to “visit” electronically in the homes of shut-ins.
(Caldor) “That would really be a tremendous opportunity, it seems to me. That would be great, and it seems like we are moving in that direction.”
(Delaney) Political scientist Frank Bryan is among those who believe that Town Meeting is a building block for making stronger communities, especially if towns find ways to make it accessible to more people. And he finds another positive quality the institution brings to life in Vermont: the expectation of gender-equality in fashioning public decisions.
(Bryan) “For the last 30 years the American Republic has done everything possible to equalize women’s share in political power, and we’ve failed miserably. In Congress, less than 20% of the Senators and Congressmen are women—heck, less than 15%! Even in the Vermont Legislature, which is a very progressive legislature and always has been, it’s under 35%. And so in the last 30 years we haven’t made great gains, but Town Meetings now are at 50% participation by women, or very, very close to it.
I think that’s an eloquent testimonial to why small, community-based politics are more egalitarian and progressive, which is just the opposite of what the academic elites that came out of the 20th century thought. They believed that urban people were more cosmopolitan, less parochial, more progressive, less conservative, more willing to adapt to different ways of life—but now we find that very quietly, without any fanfare, the little towns of Vermont have equalized political power.
When you go to your Vermont Town Meeting in a little Vermont town this spring, the people making the laws, the people passing the budget, raising the taxes, will be just about 50% women and 50% men. You can’t say that about any political institution, from city councils to state legislatures to national parliaments, anywhere on the planet. And I think that’s just a profound and glorious testimony to how democratic
we really are.”
(Delaney) The recent trend in Vermont is for larger towns—and some smaller ones too—to move away from floor votes and toward the yes-or-no choices offered by the Australian ballot. Advocates for Town Meeting believe there is a better way for those larger towns, and we’ll explore that in a moment.
We are hereby warned: Got to show up in the morn,
First Tuesday, Town Hall, 10 or so.
Winter’s on the wane. We’ve all gone insane.
Let’s while away the weather, kids in tow.
Greet the old town folks. Hear the gossip and the jokes,
Dip a doughnut in a good, strong cup of joe.
(Delaney) There was once a law that specified the first Tuesday in March as Town Meeting Day. That’s a working day unless you work for the state, and so some towns hold their meetings on Monday, or on the prior weekend. That has not reversed the slipping attendance and participation figures, but author Susan Clark is pushing an idea that might.
(Clark) “We should be treating Town Meeting participation the way
we treat jury duty. It’s a civic duty, and we should be able to get time
off from work to do it.”
(Delaney) Secretary of State Markowitz says that bill needs some changes, but is under active consideration. Another Susan Clark idea for strengthening Town Meeting requires conditioning the minds of lawmakers.
(Clark) “I think any time that decision-making is taken farther and farther away from citizens and from communities, people are going to lose interest in the process. I think decision-makers, when they’re creating policy—you know we’ve heard of environmental impact statements, there should be a democratic impact statement! Legislators and policymakers should look at the impact of every decision they make on citizens’ participation, and whether it’s going to erode citizens’ participation in democracy.”
(Bryan) “The fundamental way to strengthen Town Meeting is for the Legislature to give the towns more to do.”
(Delaney) Professor Frank Bryan:
(Bryan) “We really need a home rule, either by Constitutional change or by statute, so individual towns, without going through charter change, can do many more things on their own. If we could do that, that would help an awful lot. So that’s key…if we don’t do that, nothing else will help at all.”
(Delaney) The erosion of participation in Vermont’s larger towns is not inevitable. In Brattleboro, where the population is about 12,000, it’s
being countered with a formula called Representative Town Meeting: more involvement
than Australian ballot, but less inclusive than a traditional floor-vote meeting.
Secretary of State Deb Markowitz:
(Markowitz) “The way the Representative Town Meeting works is that neighborhoods elect a representative who then goes to the Town Meeting and has the kind of rich discussion we see at our Town Meetings, and comes up with decisions that hopefully work for the entire community.”
(Delaney) “So each neighborhood delegates one of its own members to go and represent them, and vote for them, and that brings the number of participants down to a manageable size?”
(Markowitz) “That’s exactly right, and it really guarantees participation. What we see happen is a precipitous drop-off when a community gets to a particular size, and very few people end up coming if there is a floor meeting; this prevents that from happening. In the first instance it gives that rich quality of democracy that comes from conversation and debate and compromise—and it’s been very successful there.”
(Delaney) It will require legislative changes for other towns to use the Brattleboro
form of Town Meeting. On this issue, Governor Jim Douglas is in agreement.
(Douglas) “I expect that as municipalities grow, there will be more interest in the Representative Town Meeting we have in Brattleboro. That’s certainly a better option than delegating all authority to elected officials. But I think we’ll find ways to increase participation—to get more people focused on the importance and value of this great institution. I hope we can encourage more young people to learn about it, because—as in so many fields—if they learn about it and become interested, the
next generation will perhaps take it more seriously than we do today.”
(Delaney) The sense of community that Vermonters express at Town Meeting is an intangible value that social scientists are now calling social capital, the force that binds individuals into villages and larger communities. Susan Clark says social capital is rare, and getting more so.
(Clark) “We see that we have less and less of it across America,
but we also know how to build it. Some of the elements that are most important
in building community—in building social capital—are bringing people who
are diverse together. Bringing them together to work—not just to play and
socialize, but to solve their common problems, and doing it over time. Repeatedly
over time. You couldn’t ask for a better recipe for building community than
(Delaney) Secretary Markowitz is among those who believe that Town Meeting embodies community pride, direct democracy, civility and the Vermont mystique.
(Markowitz) “I think people do see Town Meeting as something special for Vermont, and something that we’re proud of. When we think about what makes Vermont unique, Town Meeting is very often one of the things that we’ll list. It’s a treasured tradition, and I think that alone helps us get attention for the issue…”
(Delaney) Let me interrupt and ask you this: If it is a treasured tradition, what keeps it from being an anachronism that keeps slowly fading away until the only time it’s practiced is at some theme park to an earlier America, where there’s a performance?
(Markowitz) “Well, that’s the argument now—that’s the danger. As our population grows, as more people are working in communities that are not the ones they’re living in, there is this slow erosion of Town Meeting. To the extent that we can keep pointing to this erosion, we will get some attention. Also, there’s a cyclical nature to this. Every January and February as we’re starting to draft warning for articles and petitions that are coming in, there is an attention across Vermont to this tradition.”
(Delaney) For years, participants in Town Meeting have resisted attempts to put “foreign” items on the agenda—that is, issues that are fought outside the town lines: nuclear power, and foreign policy questions. Some of the tension between old and new Vermonters can be traced to whether those things are proper topics for Town Meeting.
The introduction of so-called “outside issues” is a fairly regular
occurrence in Vermont.
In 1982 more than 150 towns voted to get the U.S. out of the business of deploying nuclear weapons.
Secretary Markowitz has come to believe that such issues can help revitalize Town Meeting.
(Markowitz) “We talked about Australian ballot. The other big
thing with Town Meeting is whether it’s appropriate to be talking about social,
political and national issues. My feeling is, those questions are one way that we will get to revitalize our Town Meetings. That’s sort of the hopeful piece—that people want to use this forum to talk about issues that they think are important. They’re just not always the local issues anymore.”
(Delaney) In 2005 the town of Calais debated the war issue, after a moment of silence for a fallen local boy. National Guard Sergeant Jamie Gray was killed in Iraq, seven generations after his family settled in Calais. Vermont’s losses had reached double digits. Moderator Gus Seelig went off the agenda on their behalf.
(Seelig) “I would just like to ask if we might take a moment to reflect on them and the other folks we’ve lost.”
(Delaney) There was a resolution asking the Legislature to study the role of the National Guard and its availability for homeland security missions. Resident Eric Oberg was part of the debate.
(Oberg) “This is a way that we as a community can have ourselves heard. I feel we have not been heard. And this is our chance, so let’s make the most of it.”
(Delaney) But John Russell, who fought in Vietnam more than 30 years ago, told the assembly the resolution would undermine the morale of the troops in Iraq today.
(Russell) “I can tell you what it’s like to see bodies piled up like cords of wood. I can also tell you what it’s like not to feel supported. I can tell you the complete desperation of total loneliness—like being in a tomb—when people say, ‘we support you’ but they don’t, really.”
(Delaney) One woman in Calais felt that the home front should stay united
(Calais woman) “The only ones benefiting by us criticizing the President of the United States and not supporting our troops over there is the war criminals and insurgency terrorists alone, because if you send a resolution to this, we’re a divided nation. That’s my opinion on this resolution. I don’t like it, and I’d like to see it voted down. Thank you.”
(Delaney) It was not voted down. In Calais and in 46 other towns, the resolution questioning the Guard’s role and its availability for home duties passed. In the Legislature, it was sent to committee.
Resolutions on national issues continue to bubble up at Town Meetings, and sometimes draw national attention when the tiny state of Vermont speaks out. Former Moderator Peter Mallary is a VPR commentator who’s been thinking about how Town Meeting fits into the larger view and the longer sweep of history.
(Mallary) “What does this annual exercise signify in an ever more complicated world, a world perched on the edge of conflict, a conflict very different from those of the past? In a search for context I dipped into Charles Cummings’ “The Vermonter,” the magazine published out of White River during the first half of the 20th century. In the issue of January 1937, Esther B. Stebbins wrote a piece about Town Meeting which really resonated.
‘March Meeting is the most democratic institution on God’s earth,’ Stebbins wrote. ‘In these days of dictatorships and near what-not, the näive independence and sturdy courage of speech of New England villagers is as refreshing as it is reassuring. To them Town Meeting is a serious—often a fighting—matter, but it is also a pleasant social duty. Much of what goes on may be a tempest in a teapot, but of many such tempests are Democracy made.’
She goes on to describe a meeting which would, in most of its particulars, be entirely recognizable to us. ‘Certainly,’ Stebbins concludes, ‘until the Town Meeting is squelched, there will be freedom in the United States.’
Now I am not exactly sure what Esther B. Stebbins meant by ‘near what-not,’ but I feel certain we are living with some similar condition today. So I hope you had the chance to see your community in conversation, that ‘sincere attempt to pull out the dead wood and get off to a fresh start,’ as Stebbins put it back in 1937. It makes you proud to be a Vermonter. It makes you proud to be an American. That’s a tonic we can all use a generous swig of just now.”
(Delaney) At every Town Meeting the moderator finally reaches the last item on the agenda, and it always sounds about the way it does in West Windsor, where we started.
(Moderator) “Those persons who are in favor of the article as read to you, signify by saying Aye.”
(Moderator) “And those opposed, nay.”
“Nay.” [louder chorus]
(Moderator) “Look at it this way. You will leave the Fourth Estate with no ability to tell you what just happened. Can I have a motion and a second to adjourn this special meeting? [“So moved.”] Second? [“Second.”] Those in favor signify by saying Aye…”
(Moderator) “You have adjourned this special meeting.”
(Delaney) In a moment, some conclusions on the evolution of Town Meeting.
Seniors and the poor; families, critters and lots more;
We’d better help them out, this Meeting Day.
We’ll share a bit of wealth with the Earth and mental health
While passing generosity their way.
Keeping schools afloat lights a fire ‘neath the vote;
It’s kindled by the cash flow of the town.
Concern is in the cries, talk is mostly civilized.
More lively conversation can’t be found.
(Delaney) Town meeting is part civic pride, part practical decision-making, part election, part forum for the airing of controversy, part community picnic…and all Vermont. There are centrifugal forces pulling it apart, and gravitational forces holding it together. Secretary of State Deb Markowitz believes the binding forces are stronger.
(Markowitz) “I’m optimistic about the future, because it is so central to Vermont’s identity, that I do believe that Vermonters will rally and make sure that it’s preserved in some meaningful way. I think we’re at a point of transition. I believe that Vermont is not ready to get rid of this important institution.”
(Delaney) Because it is an important institution, Town Meeting will adapt to change in those places that have outgrown the traditional floor meeting. There are a number of ideas on how to help Town Meeting make those changes: Should there be something like an environmental impact statement to measure the impact of decisions on the practice of democracy? Should we invest more in what’s called social capital—the building of communities? Would the drift toward making vital decisions by Australian ballot be blunted if more towns go to the Brattleboro solution, a Representative Town Meeting?
Some of those questions are abstract, but some are political, requiring legislative action, and of the first two, neither is a cinch for passage. Here’s Speaker of the House Gaye Symington on the Brattleboro variation of Town Meeting.
(Symington) “I don’t think it would work for every community, but it would certainly make sense to allow every community that option.”
(Delaney) On the prospects for treating Town Meeting Day like a day of jury duty, she’s somewhat less enthusiastic.
(Symington) “I would encourage employers to do what they can to accommodate their employees who want to participate in Town Meeting, but I don’t think Vermont is ready for that to be a requirement.”
(Delaney) There may not be the political will in Vermont right now to make the kinds of adjustment to Town Meeting that would help it shift into a new era as an example of community-based decision-making. But Frank Bryan believes that as technology allows more and more people to work in the communities where they live, the time for such adjustments will come.
(Bryan) “In the long run—it won’t happen in my lifetime, but in the long run—if we can hang onto the concept now, and practice it now, and keep it alive now, in the next 50 or 100 years it’ll be stronger than ever. I said in one of my books that one of the great tragedies for Vermont—which has the strongest system of Town Meeting, really, in the world—would be to give it up just when it’s coming back into vogue. And it is. Community decision-making is coming back. Networks are replacing hierarchies and democracy is replacing authority. It’s happening in businesses; we know that. I mean, in all kinds of venues it’s happening, and the Town Meeting is the most eloquent political expression of that.”
(Delaney) Montpelier attorney Paul Gillies is a former assistant Secretary of State, and is still consulted on Town Meeting issues. He’s also a Town Moderator, and he says the podium gives him a unique vantage point on the proceedings.
(Gillies) “What I see from behind the rostrum is the heart of the town. Sometimes that heart is hard, sometimes warm and generous, sometimes startlingly eloquent, and always, I think, wise. Wise in a way that is larger than any one of us, because the outcome is the result of people reasoning together.
Just listen to the debate. Hear the elders of the town remind us of how it used to be; hear the young parents, anxious for the future of their children; hear the cranky and the distressed; the comics and the sober; and together you hear what’s in their hearts. This may be the only time all year that some people speak in public, but something in the discussion gives them the courage to state a position—and sometimes change the direction of the debate and the outcome of the vote.
Not everybody trusts everybody to make decisions. Throughout history, we have relied on the generosity of leaders to make decisions for us, and most of the laws and orders that rule us are made by elected or appointed individuals or representative groups. It’s more efficient that way, at least in principle, and frees up our time so that we can earn money to pay taxes.
But then comes the first Tuesday in March. The tables turn. The leaders sit quietly while the voters decide the big questions of budgets and policy. What makes the air tingle with tension is the tantalizing possibility that any article might be turned down or amended.
The people rule. No, it’s not just a platitude or a politician’s nostalgic reference—not on the first Tuesday of March, in towns that hold traditional Town Meetings. Town Meeting is the reason there is a Vermont as we know it. It brings out the best in us. It keeps our officials properly humble. And it is the best show in town.”
(Delaney) As Vermont evolves, so does Town Meeting, in patterns that are still unclear. Public pressure can lead to strengthening…or indifference can lead to atrophy. But in whatever form Town Meeting evolves, one central element must be present: civility.
In Danville, every Town Meeting in recent years has begun with an eloquent invocation to civility. Toby Balivet wrote it, and recites it:
(Balivet) “We are gathered together in civil assembly. We gather as a community, in the oldest sense of the word. We gather to come together and try to make decisions; about what is right, about what is wrong. Let us advocate for our positions, but not at the expense of others. Let us remember that there is an immense gap between saying, ‘I am right,’ and saying, ‘I believe I am right.’ And that our neighbors with whom we disagree are good people ‘with hopes and dreams as true and high as ours.’ And let us always remember that, in the end, caring for each other in this community is of far greater importance than any differences we may have.”
(Delaney) Toby Balivet says he really wouldn’t mind if other towns begin their meetings with his civil prayer, on the first Tuesday in March. For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Delaney.
[Credits] First Tuesday in March is a production of Vermont Public Radio. Our program was reported and written by Steve Delaney. The producer was Lynne McCrea. Chris Albertine was the technical director. We had additional reporting by Bob Kinzel, John Dillon, Betty Smith and Nina Keck. John Van Hoesen was the executive producer. The song A Town Meeting Tune was composed and performed by Jon Gailmor. This documentary was made possible by the listeners of Vermont Public Radio. You can learn more about Vermont Town Meetings at vpr.net.
Down from the mountains, up from the dales;
In from the woodlands, chock full of tales;
Checked out the neighbors. Found out the news.
That whole floor was ours today, we got to choose.
No time to lose.