A Call To Action Burlington Free Press, February 12, 2005

 

The world calls it democracy," the authors write. "We call it town meeting."

Those lines from a new book by University of Vermont political science professor Frank Bryan and civic facilitator Susan Clark capture the essence -- and fragile vitality -- of Vermont's precious town meeting tradition. The book goes one important step further, offering specific advice to communities on ways to protect and strengthen this time-honored tradition.

First, the book notes, town meeting can be a voice for change. In 1982, for example, more than 150 Vermont communities passed resolutions calling for a freeze on the development of nuclear bombs by the United States and Russia -- a fact noted by Public Radio's Jim Lehrer and then-Sen. Dan Quayle in an interview at the time.

Attendance is solid, if not overwhelming. About one in five Vermonters attends town meeting, although an impressive 44 percent speak out on issues. Unfortunately, attendance appears to be declining.

Introduction of the Australian ballot is one factor. The goal is to give more residents an opportunity to vote on important issues such as school budgets. Unfortunately, that balloting erodes public participation and debate on issues central to town meetings.

"School boards watch as entire budgets go down because a simple compromise on one issue is impossible" with Australian balloting, the authors point out. And fewer people are likely to attend the debate portion of town meeting when the most difficult issues, like school funding, are essentially off the table for discussion.

That's too bad because even the smaller items at town meeting can be important to a community, as anyone who has sat through town meeting debate over everything from setting up speed traps to supporting the town historical society can tell you.

The population boom in many communities has also led to a decrease in participation as residents feel less connected and involved in their town meeting tradition. Those who don't go are missing a rare and satisfying treat. It's not always pretty, but it is the truest form of democracy.

There are ways to strengthen town meeting participation. Among those:

Employers should help workers attend. That might be difficult in some cases, but if possible, scheduling flexibility ought to be offered on this important day.

Within reason, communities should consider using technology to bring in those who cannot attend but seek to participate. Those might include servicemen and women overseas or the elderly and infirm who are homebound.

Issues should be highlighted and well publicized. If residents know something they care about is on the ballot, they are more likely to attend. Combine school and town meetings, rather than hold separate gatherings.

Arrange for child care, and offer rides to those who need help attending.

Include a community potluck or some other food-related event; don't use microphones that can be intimidating to novice speakers; thank people in the community who have contributed over the year; and include a brief celebration of an accomplishment, such as a slideshow on a park opening.

Perhaps one of the most important suggestions is to involve youth in town meeting. After all, these are tomorrow's civic citizens who will determine if this town meeting tradition, which started in the 1700s, survives another generation.

The book, "All Those in Favor -- Rediscovering the Secret of Town Meeting and Community," includes other suggested reading material. It is published by RavenMark Inc., and can be purchased through the Vermont Institute for Government. For information, call the institute at 223-2389.