Today is the first Tuesday in March. In political circles, that means Super Tuesday, where voters in various states vote in the primaries, for their favored nominee, for Presidential candidate. In Vermont, it means Town Meeting Day!
I’m not sure how many New England states still practice the art of Town Meeting, but Vermont continues with the proud tradition! Town Meeting is not merely the duty of showing up to vote. Town Meeting is an event! If you really want to see what Democracy in action looks like, find a way to attend a good ole fashioned Town Meeting!
In my hometown of Waterbury, Vermont, Town Meeting takes place in the school Gym. If you get there early enough, you might get a chair seat on the floor; otherwise it’s the wooden bleachers for you! The Select board (town leaders) sit up front on the stage, and the moderator leads the voters through the process of issues outlined in the Town report (which is mailed out to all members of the community ahead of time). Posts are filled, like Town Constable or some of the more obscure positions like Fence-Row Surveyor. Budgets are presented for the Town Government, Fire Department, Library, etc. The floor is open to questions and debate on each item, and then a motion to vote is put forward, and the item is voted on. Those in favor say aye (pronounced I) and those opposed say nay. The meeting starts early in the morning and doesn’t finish up until sometime in the evening. It is an all day affair!
They do take breaks during the day. Dinner break is called around noon (just an FYI, for the old timers, dinner is at noon, supper is in the evening and using the word lunch is ludicrous!) The meeting is reconvened for the afternoon session and then supper break is called later in the day. If there is still any business to conduct after that, the meeting will reconvene again, and go in to the evening until all business on Town matters is concluded. In a nutshell, that is town meeting. But the nutshell doesn’t do it justice! There is a dynamic, an energy that you just don’t experience any other way!
Whether you are young or old, cantankerous or bashful, everyone has a voice! The proposed budget items may be set by the Select board but you have the opportunity to ask questions and debate on the spot! Anyone who is a registered voter, can stand in front of the microphone, and have their opinion heard! You’re not just going in to a voting booth and checking the appropriate box, you are actively participating in the give and take process, and voting on things that effect not only you, but your entire community. You literally see the community in front of you. You see their faces. You sit side by side. Your neighbor hears your ayes as well as your nays! Sometimes things get contentious, but there is a level of respect for opposing opinions that you don’t find anywhere else!
Is the process long? Could it be done more efficiently by merely placing the items on a ballot, and having individuals come in, and vote in a ballot booth? I’m sure that it could. But in doing so, you miss out on a wonderful opportunity to participate in a dynamic, meaningful process. Town Meeting is dynamic! It is alive and energetic! It is also incredibly meaningful because you know that you have had an opportunity to be heard! The community, together, as a whole, works its way through the process of deciding issues for the town as a group! That my darling friends, is huge! There is truly a sense of being a part of something that is bigger than just you!
As you can tell, I miss being able to participate in Town Meeting. I miss hearing the questions and the thought provoking debates. I miss sitting next to neighbors and hearing their opinions. I miss being able to participate in something more than a piece of paper in a ballot booth. Town Meeting taught me to be respectful of other peoples opinions. It taught me the art of a good debate. It taught me the importance of being involved in community because I do have a stake in the place where I live! It taught me the art of loving my neighbor and doing unto others in a purposeful way. My vote did not just effect me. It had an impact on others and I was reminded of that point vividly as I saw their faces surrounding me.
For my family and friends in Vermont; happy Town Meeting day! For those of you who have never experienced it-you don’t know what you’re missing!