Our country is built on democracy. Every person has the opportunity to speak up, be heard and make a difference. It is difficult for one small group or a few select people to know what is best for a town or community if people do not take initiative. What defines quality of life is different for every community. Regardless of the definition, quality of life is vital for communities.
Attending a Vermont town meeting (March 6) was the perfect reinforcement for this belief.
Town meeting started with hundreds of people this year, crowded into the elementary school gymnasium. It was astonishing to see so many people there; I overheard many people saying it was the largest town meeting they’ve ever seen.
What happens at town meeting? In its simplest explanation, town meeting addresses the budget of the town. It’s not issues like mailboxes and flower pots. It is how the residents will spend their collective money for the year.
See the Citizen’s Guide for the typical scenarios and procedures. Basically, a moderator runs the meeting. Budget articles for discussion are addressed one at a time. An article must be moved, seconded and can then be amended by discussion. After the select board, any resident is able to stand up and make a motion. Meaning, you could stand up and say you think this organization should receive $750 rather than $500 in the budget and here’s why. After discussion, everyone will vote for or against the amendment. Voting at a floor meeting is done orally – aye or nay and the moderator determines which side has the majority. An article is then voted on with the amendment (or not, depending on the previous vote).
Some articles are small sums of money, such as $1000 allocation to a non-profit, whereas otherwise are much bigger such as construction of a new firehouse or police station. The non-budget issue that my town discussed at length was whether or not to move town meeting to a Monday night as opposed to Tuesday morning date. Fortunately, it is also possible to move that discussion is limited on topics. Sometimes, people want their voices heard and that’s great, but sometimes people start back tracking and saying the same thing, in only slightly different words. In situations like this, limiting discussion is appreciated.
People can make motions to vote by paper ballot for a particular issue, and a motion can be made to vote on whether or not to vote on an issue at this time. At my town meeting, chaos did seem to ensue when all hundreds of people had to write yes or no on a ballot and bring it to the ballot box at the front of the room. (This was to vote whether to table discussion or to vote that day.)
As silly as that may seem, it’s really not. The articles of the meeting address the actual town budget. The town budget can be amended right there on the floor. Anyone can walk up to microphone, say their motion and speak to it. Residents then vote to approve the amendment or not, before voting on the article. And changes did actually happen on the floor. This would never happen on a paper ballot; it could not.
The downside is that people can talk on and on, and sometimes budget items are not that exciting. You may not have a foundation for every article up for discussion. I wonder if people feel pressured to vote with the majority, differently than they would vote on paper ballots. Then again, if people feel strongly for something, they are likely to vote how they feel. Perhaps it balances out? Additionally, I imagine the moderator’s skill of understanding the vote by voice (aye or nay) is incredible.
Many people left the meeting after the first hour (of four hours) due to other commitments or a lack of interest in the articles. While these articles may seem minor, it was a shame that so many people deserted the meeting after the first two articles. After all, there is a budget beyond those items. So while the meeting did drag at the end, I could not bring myself to leave early. I figured it was one day a year, and it was only four hours. What kind of civil servant and interested community member would I be if I ducked out of the meeting? If town residents do not care enough to stay, then who will care?
So I survived year one of town meeting (hopefully of many to come). My first town meeting was very interesting; seemingly a tad bit antiquated at times, but also empowering. The best thing to take away is the feeling of Vermonters shaping Vermont and making decisions with their community members.