Upper Valley News, February 25, 2005
All Those in Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town
Meeting and Community.
By Susan Clark and Frank Bryan. RavenMark, 87 pps, $9.95.
By Rich Barlow
RESOLVED: Town meeting is a priceless institution, to be preserved at all reasonable cost.
Let’s admit that as draftees compelled to attend town meeting, we journalists aren’t the best people to answer the question. l well remember an Orford gathering I covered for this paper that gridlocked over what model of truck to buy. One resident in particular discussed the pros and cons of various engines with the passion of a general planning the siege of Falujah. It took what seemed like half the night to settle the matter.
Such civic indecision is nothing new. In Bradford’s early years, according to All Those in Favor, voters spent five years and numerous town meetings pondering a site for a town-sponsored meetinghouse. They couldn’t make up their minds, so they put the question to an advisory committee from Newbury, Haverhill and Piermont, whose recommendation the voters ultimately endorsed.
As Vermonters pack baked goods, get out the knitting needles and yarn, and otherwise prepare for the annual winter rendezvous with democracy next week, the ancient tradition is under threat, and All Those in Favor means to raise the alarm. Middlesex educator Susan Clark and University of Vermont political scientist Frank Bryan, both reared Vermonters, answer the resolution above with an unhesitating yes. In a culture brimming with incivility, “Face-to-face participation teaches forbearance and tolerance,” they write. “Town meetings build community by bringing people together.” Contrary to critics’ claims, attendance averages only slightly below turnout for ballot voting in other states, say Clark and Bryan. And “unlike the polling booth, town meetings can be exciting, interesting and fun.” The operative words in that last sentence are “can be.” The authors place partial blame for the fundamental problem they say threatens town meeting--plummeting participation--on the syndrome I saw that night in Orford, trivial discussion. “(T)own meeting attendance is highest, and democracy works best, when important issues are at stake,” the authors say. But the biggest turnout-killer is population growth. As towns bulge, voters feel less connected as a community and less able to make a difference as individuals at huge meetings. Clark and Bryan acknowledge that in towns with more than 3,600 people, meeting turnout typically manages an unimpressive 5 percent.
The authors’ remedies include the nitty-gritty; there’s a chapter of suggestions for staging a successful town meeting, down to food tips. (“Even simply placing a candy on each chair can help remind people that town meeting is a celebration of democracy.”) A more intriguing proposal for large towns is the “representative town meeting.” Under this system (which the book recommends be considered in Hartford, among other places), voters elect delegates to represent them at a scaled-down town meeting. Brattleboro is the only Vermont town with a representative meeting, but residents must like it, having used it since the late 1950s.
Clark’s and Bryan’s love of Vermont tradition is infectious for its touching sincerity. The book’s brevity is a plus overall, but it too often leaves them relying on drive-by reasoning, shooting off a point without much corroboration. References abound to unspecified studies. They report, for
example, that at the average town meeting, 44 percent of voters say something. They don’t say where that figure comes from; Dartmouth political scientist Denis Sullivan taught a generation of students that most meeting-goers sit mute while the most informed or passionate blabbermouths
run the show. I don’t doubt the authors’ research; Bryan in particular is a well-known scholar of matters Vermont. But their case would have been more persuasive with a few more specifics.
Then, too, their cheerleading gets cloying at times. It’s simply hyperbole to say that the movement to replace town meeting with Australian ballot (voting at the polls) would result in a “tragedy.” Living under dictatorship is a tragedy. Opting for poll voting may be misguided, but as a former resident and poll-voter of Lebanon, I can attest that there are far more tragic things in life.
The authors know that, too. They offer powerful witness to town meeting’s embodiment of freedom, and the absence of that freedom elsewhere, when they write that an Afghan official asked them if tribal leaders could attend a town meeting. “There is no better place to look for democratic hope than in your state,” the official told them. Vermonters aren’t the only Americans who’ll feel proud and blessed after reading that line.