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Town Meeting Tradition

By Kevin Foley Article published March 2, 2005

Sophomore Jordan Wareham is rapt. He and his notebook, budget book, research data sheets and winter gear are occupying a half row of bleachers in the Charlotte Central School on March 1, overlooking a sea — or rather, at this late point in the day, more of a pond of gray heads — as he scribbles feverishly, doing his part to maintain Vermont’s other town meeting day tradition.

This year, as they have for nearly a generation, Professor Frank Bryan’s Vermont politics students have fanned out across the state to take their stations on bleachers and folding chairs and closely monitor the mechanics of participatory democracy. Their research informed Bryan’s book Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works, published last year by the University of Chicago Press, but mostly it informs them about a key Vermont tradition of citizen legislation, whether they grew up in Vermont or, like Wareham, were raised somewhere where democracy is more representative than participatory.

Charlotte is having a quiet town meeting this year — arguably the biggest issue of the day is whether to purchase a $140,000 “Volvo” or a cheaper “Subaru” rescue ambulance, as the Iraq national guard proposal voted on elsewhere is not on the official agenda — but Wareham is into the proceedings. He’s working his pencil tracking the ever-changing tally of participants at the meeting, recording outcomes and amendments to the various propositions (the town went high-end on the ambulance, by the way), and recording the demographics of who speaks and for how long.

During the school-board portion of the meeting, town resident Lorna Jimerson offers a heartfelt plea for more engagement with educational issues — the town’s recent decision to vote on the school budget by Australian ballot rather than in the traditional meeting, she thinks, will inevitably drain away public participation. The 40 or so in attendance (down from 180 earlier) break into first scattered, then strong applause.

Wareham understands such concerns about the future of town meeting, but says the class and his experience observing left him optimistic about the tradition.

“I was talking to my roommate yesterday, who was really apathetic about politics in the United States and feeling like individual voices can’t be heard in the process,” Wareham says. “I told him to talk with me about it tomorrow, after the town meeting, after I’ve seen how it works at the local level. And it does work — it seemed like people were really engaged.”

Wareham’s passion for politics comes through the crackles of a cell phone conversation later that evening. It’s more than 12 hours after he departed for Charlotte’s six-hour meeting at 7:30 a.m., but he’s still buzzed about what he saw and heard.

“I thought it was awesome. I was blown away,” he says.

This year, with a much-hyped storm poised to dump five-to-twelve inches of snow, Bryan made attending town meeting optional rather than mandatory (the professor hasn’t gone soft; he says he “didn’t want to be responsible for someone wrapping themselves around a tree”), but Wareham didn’t even consider skipping the trip.

“This is a class in Vermont politics, and town meeting is Vermont politics,” he says. “How can you not go to the event that epitomizes what you’re learning about?”

Rollicking recap
The next day, in a jammed classroom on the north end of Lafayette, the class meets and recaps the experience. The “weenies” (Bryan’s term) who skipped the meeting, about 40 percent, cower as Bryan quizzes students who did go about what they saw and heard, tossing off Vermont trivia all the while.

Bryan asks the class, again and again, citizens can govern themselves? Was the town meeting they saw good democracy? Did it work? And the students, to be fair, are divided. For all the romance of the New England tradition and the ideal of citizen legislation, Vermont town meetings are also marked by uncomfortable chairs, lengthy deliberations about issues trivial to outsiders, and the occasional kook.

Early in the discussion, a student describes the well-attended meeting in North Hero (which, incidentally, Bryan’s data once indicated was one of the best in the state in terms of its energy and participation) that decided to discontinue the annual town meeting and shift to Australian ballot.

”No democrat can argue with a town meeting being killed democratically,” Bryan tells the class. “It was a suicide, a democratic one. Can you really complain?”

The student, somewhat wistfully, says, “Yes.”

The class discusses how, in a well-run and responsive town, the meetings in many years probably should be boring. Bryan also argues that, whatever the New York Times might say, long discussions about fireworks displays, snow plowing, police salaries and new fire trucks are important, because citizens are deciding among themselves about issues that affect them daily.

In part because of the research assignment, which requires students to closely track attendance and participation at their meetings, the class spends a lot of time on turnout. Many students were disappointed by the number of people at their meetings, and the way the citizenry melted off during the course of a long day.

When asked a similar question earlier — if what he saw indicates that town meeting is healthy — Wareham pauses.

“It’s a tough question. I do think it’s healthy, but at the same time, it was mostly older people, I didn’t see one younger person there at all. The mean age was probably 44 years old. In that demographic, I do think it’s healthy,” he says. “But roughly 250 people took part, over a long day. Some people got cut short, but if someone really wanted to speak, they could speak. So yeah, ultimately I think it’s extremely healthy, and part of what makes Vermont unique.”