Town Meeting Day

Today, the first Tuesday in March, is the annual Town Meeting Day throughout Vermont. If you’re from New England, this is nothing new to you. If you’re from elsewhere, it might sound a bit like something out of Gilmore Girls. However, it’s a bit more serious than that; town residents meet to hear and vote upon town financial matters and other issues for the year. Town meeting dates back to 1762 in Vermont (the first one was held in Bennington). The Vermont Secretary of State produced a Citizen’s Guide to Town Meeting Day. Read about the specifics of voting and procedures here. (The middle school version is more fun to share.)

Town Meeting Day is a state holiday, which allows many people the time to attend. Some towns have the meeting the weekend prior or at night, allowing for greater participation. Many towns now run the meeting by “Australian ballot” as opposed to “floor meeting.” The difference? Australian ballot allows for voting all day, whereas floor meeting allows only for voting at the meeting after discussion of issues. This can take all day; hence, preference for Australian ballot.

Town halls, as buildings, are an important architectural style across Vermont. Historic town halls, although they vary in construction, massing and cladding, they are generally easy to spot in town. A “Town Hall in Vermont” Multiple Property Document Form was completed in 1991 by Liz Pritchett; it is available at the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation. Town halls have served as multipurpose spaces for residents; sometimes schools or churches. Today the historic town halls aren’t always the current town hall (see Middlebury’s rehabilitation from town hall to theater), since changing times often requires changing spaces. Here are four of Vermont’s town halls.

Bethel Town Hall, 1911. Image via UVM Landscape Change. Click for source.

Bristol Town Hall. Image via Henry Sheldon Museum & UVM Landscape Change. Click for source.

Middlebury Town Hall, which is now the Middlebury Town Hall Theater. Image via UVM Landscape Change. Click for source.

Addison Town Hall, 2010.

Today will be my first Vermont town meeting; I’m excited. From what I hear, there are some village v. town issues that may be present during the meeting. Sounds like I’ll need a cup of coffee. Once I know more about town meetings in Vermont, I’ll report back on my experiences and the tradition.  Vermont Public Radio provides up to date town meeting coverage and tweets (no, I’m not kidding – this is a big deal!)

Do you live in a state with town meetings? What do you think of the tradition?

p.s. Rather than its usual Tuesday slot, Preservation Photos returns tomorrow.

p.p.s. Today is also the presidential primary election in Vermont. Vote!

13 thoughts on “Town Meeting Day

  1. Quill Gordon says:

    Our village conducts business with a floor meeting. Every item in the budget up for discussion, even if it takes all day. Local control on an intimate scale. It’s an interesting thing to pull off.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Hi Quill,

      Our town also conducted business via floor meeting, and we had a paper ballot in there too (chaos for hundreds of people). It was such an interesting experience, and amazing how every single budget item can be amended right there at the meeting. Democracy in action. Australian ballot would completely take that away, I think (not democracy, but the ability to amend and discuss).

      • Quill Gordon says:

        It takes a lot of effort to make Town Meeting work and that’s one of the things I like about it. We had no paper ballots called yesterday, but we did have a couple of motions to call the question and end debate. That meant we had to vote on whether to vote. For the first, the voice vote was close, so someone called for a division of the house so we voted twice on whether we should vote. More debate was called for so we continued. The second call came toward the end of the day and passed easily, I think because people were getting tired, but everyone had their say.

        I’m glad you made it through your first Town Meeting. Here’s to many more.

  2. Mark says:

    It was a tradition in the earliest days of where I grew up too, in places like this 1765 meeting house built by Congregationalists from Cape Cod and Nantucket. But the tradition didn’t continue, in large part because you Americans had to get all uppity a while back (ha !) and kick out the Brits who then flooded Nova Scotia. So many Brits came that the very cool town hall tradition was eventually lost. Great. Thanks America. Way to go, stupid Loyalists.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Sorry about those ancestors, Mark. If it helps, my Irish family had not yet immigrated to America! ha. What a shame about the building – it was a good one.

      • Mark says:

        The bldg. is still there. The tradition, alas, is not. At least not as described above. I’d be curious to know how such meetings fare in more urban environments…..e.g.: when does City Hall replace Town Hall ? What happens in places like Burlington, Hartford or Boston ?

  3. John Hlumyk says:

    Living just over the Pennsylvania line from the old Connecticut Western Reserve, I am familiar with some of the still standing “meeting houses” that can be found there. Now I’m curious to know if the traditional New England town meeting has endured there or not. I’ll have to ask my friend from Hartford, Ohio when I see him tonight. If anyone would know it would be him. He has dug deeper into the history of the Western Reserve than anyone else I know. Come to think of it, he has some of the salvaged architectural elements from Hartford’s meeting house; donated to him by area residents once they realized that he could never say no to an old piece of wood.

    So is Election Day still a venerated holiday in New England? Does anyone still make an Election Cake for it?

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