From the Connecticut Valley Spectator, February 17, 2002, page A8:
TRADITIONAL TOWN MEETING IS PURE DEMOCRACY
By Willy Black
As the end of February nears, our pulses pick up a beat in anticipation of the annual town meeting, or local government’s March Madness.
Town meeting... “is a time for citizens to gather to discuss, amend, approve . .or reject the proposals that will shape their community for the coming year, so says Vermont Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz.
In 1835, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his “Reform Papers”: Town meeting is the true Congress, the most respectable one ever assembled in the United States.”
The New Hampshire Municipal Association defines town meeting as being “a direct or ‘pure’ democracy, in that all general town authority resides in the voters them selves, not in any representative body like a council, and not in the selectmen.” In essence, the voters at town meeting are the legislative body of the town.
In recent years, as the meetings of March Madness approach, one can hear an undercurrent of discontent, as a debate surfaces as to whether the traditional form of town meeting is relevant in today’s world. I am happy to report to all readers that the League of Women Voters of the Upper Valley will be sponsoring a forum at the Norwich Library on Wednesday evening, Feb. 23, at 7 P.m., to debate this question. Authors Susan Clark and Frank Bryan, who have just completed penning a new book titled “All Those in Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community” will be on hand to lead the discussion.
“All Those in Favor” focuses in on Vermont’s town meeting traditions, its strengths, its weaknesses, the problems, and the blessing that are associated with them. Although the book deals primarily with Vermont, it parallels the traditions also found in New Hampshire town meetings. For a book that explores government and its workings, it is a delightful read, crisply written and to the point.
This past year the Hanover Board of Selectmen has had a Task Force working diligently examining the workings of town meeting and whether the traditional format meets the needs of today’s citizens and, if not, what changes should be made. Now armed with opinions from municipal legal beagles, the selectboard will consider the options and take action in the near future.
The biggest voice for change seems to be to change the voting format to all‑day voting on all articles by Australian ballot. Critics say more people will participate, but Clark and Bryan challenge that belief. Under the proposed scenario, voters would go to the polls, use a preprinted ballot just as they do when, they vote for a governor or president of the U.S.
Sure, it’s much simpler than going to town meeting, it’s less time consuming, it’s less threatening, it’s done behind curtains in private, and no one ever knows what you think. To quote Clark and Bryan, "The Australian ballot is quick, easy, private, unaccountable and, most important, simple. It is also deadly... The Australian ballot takes away your right to legislate ‑- to be part of the lawmaking process, and it doesn’t replace it with a deliberative body that represents you ... in short, it leaves you with neither a legislature nor a town meeting.”
Paul Gillies, former Vermont deputy secretary of state, said, “With Australian ballot, you won’t be able to amend the budget. You can only vote yes, no, yes—no, yes‑no. It’s the most inarticulate conversation you’ll ever have.”
Other issues such as time of the meeting, day or evening, weekday or Saturday are explored in the book. Clark and Bryan do a great job of dissecting all the pros and cons of the town meeting format that we know today in both New Hampshire and Vermont.
This year, an article will be voted on at the Hanover School District business meeting on March 1 to switch from the historical format of voting on the articles at the meeting to one that will offer all‑day Australian ballot voting for school district business. Dresden has already switched to the Australian ballot. Before folks from Hanover go to the polls in March, come to the forum at the Norwich library and find out what happens with the switch.
An open invitation is extended to all to come to the Norwich Library on Wednesday evening, Feb. 23, at 7 P.m. to explore the tradition of town meeting and what it really means for our communities. This event is sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Upper Valley, the Norwich library and the Norwich Bookstore. Come and hear from the experts about our historical legacy, and the value in retaining a pure democracy.
Willy Black is a retired schoolteacher and the town meeting moderator of Hanover.