Commentary

Discussion will be missing from many Town Meetings this year

Town Meeting photo from 2/5/2021 “Town Meeting” Rumble Strip podcast

By George Putnam

The Rumble Strip podcast by Erica Heilman on 2/05/2021 titled “Town Meeting” interviews several Town Meeting moderators about Vermont’s annual exercise of local democracy, to be held Tuesday, March 2. It’s 30 minutes long and well worth taking the time to watch.

[Town meeting] is the most civilized and surprising social gathering of the year, every year. [Erica at 1:50]

Town Meeting Day in Vermont is the first Tuesday in March. It will be different this year because of the pandemic lockdown. Many towns, including Cambridge, will not be gathering in person. In this podcast Erica interviews several town meeting moderators about why town meeting is important, and what we will be missing this year. Following are selected comments, to entice you to listen to the whole thing.

Starting at about 24:00, Susan Clark of Middlesex talks about “town meeting culture”:

We have expectations in Vermont of civility. We have expectations of inclusion. We expect to be asked about things before decisions come down. We have democratic expectations in Vermont that other places might not have, that I think many other places do not have, because of a town meeting culture that we have created over centuries.

At 8:50 Paul Doton of Barnard talks about how town meeting works:

One of the things I point out is that everybody addresses their comments to the moderator, and the moderator will ask the questions, so there aren’t two people that are arguing across the room – which can be, and has been sometimes a problem because emotions get in the way, and I try to make sure that emotions are set aside.

(I have known Susan Clark and Paul Doton for years. I’ve mentioned Susan several times on this blog.)

Susan and Paul and the other moderators interviewed by Erica are talking about deciding issues in a meeting after discussion. They are not talking about deciding issues by merely casting a ballot, or Australian ballot as we call it in Vermont. Voting by pre-printed ballot does not build the “town meeting culture” mentioned above. It destroys it.

Australian balloting ought to be outlawed, as far as I’m concerned. [State Senator Bobby Starr of Troy at 18:35]

In addition to interviewing town meeting moderators, Erica also plays clips from several town meetings from various towns and years. The following speaker at 19:35 is not identified, but residents of Cambridge who regularly attend town meeting will immediately recognize the voice and know exactly what he is talking about:

You know right now, the house, the old Meigs house right there by Tobin’s old garage, every time it floods, that fills the basement with water. I talked to Pat Mayo, where Pat Mayo grew up [nearby]. He said, that was nothing, he says our house was always full of water. I said, you know, we turn around and build that road up now, you think about it, somebody else is going to pay for it.

That is Dana Sweet speaking at the 2018 Cambridge town meeting. Video here. He is speaking at 4:41:40 under Article 11 – Discussion of other nonbinding business.

Dana is talking about a problem that bedeviled Cambridge for years: how to deal with periodic flooding of the Lamoille River across Route 15 and Pumpkin Harbor Road that cut off access to Bartlett Hill Road.  There was no perfect solution, and various residents had strong and incompatible opinions about the matter. After years of discussions, the town finally implemented a solution in 2019. It did involve building up “that road” (Pumpkin Harbor Road) which Dana spoke about in his comments, but that seemed to be the best solution for the most people.

No sooner was the project completed than it was tested by the “Halloween Flood” of 2019. The project was a success. The town wrote about that flood, including access to Bartlett Hill Road during the flood, in the 2019 town report. See the cover, the inside front cover, the message from Emergency Management Director Dan St. Cyr on page 1, and the Selectboard Report on page 12.

Further to Dana’s comments above, in the summer of 2020, with federal funds and at the request of the owner, the town purchased and demolished “the old Meigs house” at 57 Pumpkin Harbor Road. As a condition of the federal grant, that flood-prone lot will never be developed again.

George Putnam

That is a good example of the kinds of issues that citizens grapple with at town meeting in Vermont, solving real problems that affect our communities.

And that is a good example of a local official who knows the town and its people. See Dana Sweet Wins Marvin Award. Dana has been on the Cambridge selectboard since 1989, and I have been proud to serve with him since 2017. (I’m just a newbie.)

The author is a Cambridge resident and selectboard member, publisher of the Switchel Philosopher blog, and occasional contributor to Vermont Daily. 

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3 replies »

  1. Town Meeting, where do I begin ? How about as it is defined in Wikipedia.   “A town meeting is a form of direct democracy in which most or all of the members of a community come together to legislate policy and budgets for local government.” In my opinion Town Meeting is to say the least, a double edged sword. Remember that according to Wikipeda’s definition Town Meeting was/is supposed to convene “most or all of the members of a community”. In the town which I live in Town Meeting was historically held in the old Town Hall, which had a capacity of about 120 people, that is until it was declared unsafe to do so. At this point it was moved into the town graded school, which has a capacity of about 200 citizens. The problem with both of these venues is that there are about 1200 registered voters in the town. I’m no mathematician, but but I can tell you that means that 5 out of 6 registered voters can not physically attend if they all chose to. I can also tell you that it has led to a situation where a minority has been able to pack these venues, and thus control the meetings. Yes, it is an iconic blast from the past that is still utilized to this day, but does that alone make it a good thing ? I think that in places where the process itself has not been corrupted to the point that the process serves, or benefits only a minority of the citizens, and the ability for all to be involved is still possible, it has a place, but where it discourages or makes it impossible for all to exercise their right to vote, it’s time for a change.

  2. It takes work to have a good town meeting. An excellent resource is Susan Clark’s book “All Those In Favor” available here:

    https://vtinstituteforgovt.weebly.com/all-those-in-favor.html

    The book was published in 2005, and a 10th anniversary update supplement was published in 2015.

    As a result of “lively” discussion at our 2017 town meeting, the town of Cambridge created a Community Engagement Team in April 2017. We purchased copies of that book for everyone on the CET, everyone on the selectboard, the town clerk/treasurer, and the town moderator. Using many ideas from that book, the town implemented numerous changes, mostly small changes, between the 2017 and 2018 town meetings. I documented the work of the CET on my blog. Start here:

    https://switchelphilosopher.blog/2017/11/30/community-engagement-team-report/

    I believe that the Cambridge CET was a resounding success, and the fruit was in the much improved 2018 town meeting. I blogged about that here:

    https://switchelphilosopher.blog/2018/03/08/town-meeting-day-2018/

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