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Longtime Town Meeting Member Charles Cummings chose not run this year.

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Will ballot questions restore free speech or create confusion?

Charter amendments could increase voters participation — or leave holes in representation

BRATTLEBORO—Voters will see few if any contested races in town elections on Tuesday, March 3.

Incumbents comprise the majority of the ballot, and all three of the town’s voting districts still lack a full slate of Representative Town Meeting members.

But with their felt-tipped pens hovering above the “yes” and “no” circles on the Australian ballot, voters will face several significant referendum questions this year.

Several questions propose to amend the town charter: lowering the voting age for town-wide elections, imposing six-year terms limits for Town Meeting members, and allowing any decision of more than $2 million made by meeting members — on warned articles — to go to a town-wide vote.

Described as “pro-democracy amendments” by their champion (and town meeting member), Kurt Daims, and “confusing” in a proposed fact sheet from the Selectboard, the three umbrella charter amendments contain multiple subdivisions.

If approved, they could change how Brattleboro does business.

The measures include allowing resolutions to go before Representative Town Meeting (RTM) any time during the year, requiring employers to provide two hours of paid leave for voting, moving town elections to November, and reinstating a town grand juror.

Daims summed up the issue on the website Brattleboro Common Sense by writing, “‘Our government doesn’t listen to us.’ That’s a common complaint. Brattleboro town government has restricted rights of official free speech that have been a traditional part of Vermont and New England.”

“The Pro-Democracy Amendments will restore our rights and enhance voter participation,” wrote Daims.

But at recent Selectboard meetings, the board has expressed concern that the amendments might do more harm than good.

In a draft fact sheet, the board commented on the six-year term limits: “It’s anti-democratic to ban Brattleboro residents from [serving as members of Representative] Town Meeting because they have attended six years in a row.”

“Term limits would bar many residents who now attend Town Meeting, and the institutional memory they bring with them would be lost,” wrote the board.

The board also raised issues with mandating that Brattleboro businesses provide two hours of paid leave.

The board wrote that such a proposal would “mandate Brattleboro employers to pay employees to attend town meetings in other towns and states.”

The board called the amendment that would change the town’s referendum system and allow voters to challenge spending decisions above $2 million “confusing and arbitrary.”

New voters?

A common question surfaced during discussions of the charter amendments: How does the town increase participation in town governance?

Daims has said that his charter amendments will do just that, especially by lowering the voting age in town elections and imposing term limits for meeting members.

Many Town Meeting Members past and present wonder if either amendment will help refresh the stream of those willing to participate in town government.

Meeting Member Spoon Agave provided a “why not” to lowering the voting age.

The potential benefits of engaging young people in the civic process will likely outweigh any detriments, he said.

The youth-vote amendment has been called “a learner’s permit for voting” that could potentially turn young people into lifetime voters and encourage more parents to vote.

Town Meeting Member Lynn Russell embraces the youth vote amendment. While acknowledging that the state might not allow such a charter change, she said, “We won’t know if we don’t try.”

Charles Cummings, who stepped down this year as a Town Meeting member, has served almost every year since the town enacted Representative Town Meeting in 1960.

Many meeting members echoed Cummings when he said, “I’m all for younger people participating in all sorts of management including the town, but I think 16 is too young.”

Meeting Member Marshall Wheelock questioned how the Town Clerk’s office would manage town elections with two sets of voters: the first group, eligible to vote in town elections only, and the rest, qualified to vote in town, state, and national elections.

Term limits

Responses from several longtime Meeting Members did not favor enacting six-year term limits.

Cummings called term limits “a death hold” on a form of representative government that serves the town well.

Wheelock said he could see that term limits might create a greater turnover of meeting members.

But, he added, Representative Town Meeting has already had problems for several years in a row in filling all 140 seats.

“I’m not sure term limits are the way to go,” said Wheelock, who has served as a meeting member for more than 40 years. He remembers a time when elections “were a real contest” with more people running than there were seats to fill.

When asked why he thought people may shy away —or flat out run screaming — from Representative Town Meeting, he answered that people live busier lives.

The annual meetings can stretch to as long as 13 hours while a few members hold the floor with lengthy comments.

And the questions that town meeting members face have also grown more complex, he said.

Charlie Robb Sr. decided at the last minute to run for Town Meeting representative this year. After many years as a meeting member, the 78-year-old initially said he wanted to step down to make room for younger people.

But he changed his mind. Robb feels strongly that the town is facing big issues that he wants to see through.

When asked about the charter amendments, he said, “I’m not impressed or happy with that.”

“At this point I don’t think we have to change the rules,” Robb added.

Delaying the Police-Fire Facilities project compromises the town’s safety, he said, noting that the project requires Representative Town Meeting to focus on getting it completed. Robb said he grew up in a family of educators and feels the town has overspent on education, at the expense of other municipal infrastructure.

He agreed that sometimes Representative Town Meeting can be an “old boys’ club.”

Marathon meetings turn people off, he said, adding that the meeting needs its own version of “The Gong Show.”

Lawrin Crispe is great moderator, said Robb, who also felt that sometimes Crispe could do a better job at keeping the same people from holding the floor over and over.

Describing himself as an old-time Vermonter of few words, Robb admitted that long-winded talking grates on him.

“Make your point, sit down, and shut up,” he said.

“You could heat the darn place with the hot air that comes out of there,” he said. “Common sense is sometimes a rare commodity.”

When asked how long he’d served as a meeting member, Robb answered, “Oh, golly.”

Robb put down the phone to ask his wife of more than 50 years, asking her how long he’d served.

When he returned, Robb replied he’s served long enough that his wife said if he runs again she’s leaving town because he gets “so ugly” during Representative Town Meeting.

Agave said imposing term limits could have merit. The limit, however, should match the 10-year limit the town has imposed on all its other boards and committees.

He didn’t see any evidence supporting term limits as a way to increase participation in Representative Town Meeting.

When the trend is empty RTM seats, why would imposing term limits inspire more people to run? Agave asked.

Representative Town Meeting Member Douglas Stark estimates he has served in that capacity for almost 15 years. He’s talked to people about running for a seat — but no one takes the bait, he said.

“Representative Town Meeting works pretty well,” said Stark. “I’d like to see some new blood in there, though.”

While he’s not sure if term limits would help increase participation, Stark said he’d like to see new faces at RTM.

“The right people could change things,” he said.

As an example, Stark pointed to the Police-Fire Facilities Project as too expensive.

“I’m a builder, I can’t fathom the prices,” he said.

Taxpayers can’t afford the rising property taxes, Stark said. Yet no one is willing to cut services.

“Nobody wants less,” he said. “Everybody wants more.”

In Stark’s opinion, most of the sitting town-meeting members can afford the property taxes so they don’t question the budget hard enough.

Stark liked the idea of taking big ticket items to a town-wide vote but questioned whether it could work.

Not enough people turn out to vote, to run for election, or to participate, he said. This weakens the process.

Is it the government, or the community fabric?

Russell, a relatively new meeting member, supports the charter amendments wholeheartedly.

“I’m in favor of any change presented,” she said. “Brattleboro government is not really serving the people.”

Russell pointed to projects like the town parking garage that voters defeated multiple times but that the town built anyway.

The 1-percent local option sales tax, despite multiple defeats at the polls, is back on the ballot this year, she said.

“People have given up and walked away,” said Russell of participating in town government or voting, “because the people in power do whatever they want.”

According to Russell, approximately 60 percent of residents earn less than a livable wage, yet the Representative Town Meeting approves increasingly higher budgets.

The people are not being served as she understands democracy, she said.

She described RTM as “an old boys’ club even though the girls get to go.”

RTM is “tight knit” and “cliquey,” said Russell, with no room for newcomers. Term limits would force the old guard to release some power and create space for an “organic flow” of new people and ideas, she said.

The Selectboard gets too much airtime at the town meeting, Russell added.

“If the town really wants more participation, they have to make room for it,” she said.

Agave said that while the charter amendments as a whole contain some valid ideas, they lack the cohesiveness to work within the broader fabric of the community.

The Daims amendments try to improve democracy, he said, but they are “just taking a shotgun approach.”

The town and residents face more fundamental problems, he said. The fabric of community has frayed.

“Until we’re willing to behave like, pull together like, and act like a community,” said Agave, participation will remain low.

Agave said he is attempting to rebuild community and a coherent community vision through his Committee of the Future project.

Daims has a lot of energy, said Agave. “I wish he were more disciplined. I wish he could work better in a group.”

But, continued Agave, Daims’ reluctance to work in a group served as an example of the fraying social fabric. It seems to him that it’s increasingly difficult for people to work together as a team.

In Agave’s view, residents aren’t excluded from town government. They no longer want to participate and Daims’ proposals don’t inspire motivation.

“We’ll see what we can do about it,” said Agave.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #293 (Wednesday, February 18, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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