GUILFORD—There’s a tradition at Town Meeting for the moderator to begin the proceedings by appealing to civility and community.
Reminders of the importance of respectfully disagreeing — because tomorrow, that person may pull your car out of the ditch, so don’t lose your temper today — are heard across the state in Grange halls and elementary school gymnasiums on the first Tuesday of March.
But what if your “sense of community” has yet to be forged as you take your seat at town meeting?
What if you’re the newcomer in sea of neighbors, hugging, shaking hands, and sharing sugaring invitations?
Rural legend — similar to urban legend, but with a much smaller demographic — has it that in little New England towns, “those from away” are seen as interlopers, usurpers. In some towns that attitude may still be so.
But in Vermont, where another rural legend asserts that “we are losing our young people,” some towns realize they cannot afford to offer a scowling visage to anyone wishing to move there.
With declining school enrollment leading to legislative acts nobody seems to like — Act 46, I’m looking at you — many residents realize that elders aren’t the only ones worthy of respect.
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During this year’s Town Meeting day — which, for most places, was March 1 — I saw this issue played out in one particular article in one small town in Windham County.
But the “old-timers vs. newcomers” conversation extended beyond the vote, into the hallways and lunch room of the Guilford Central School after Town Meeting was adjourned.
I came late to Guilford’s town meeting — it started at 10 a.m. and I got there at about 1 p.m. It wasn’t that I had slept in — it was the third Town Meeting I had to cover that day.
I arrived just in time to witness the only defeated article on the agenda; in fact, it was the only item that caused any dissent at all, according to residents who had been there since it was called to order.
Article 15 asked voters to decide if the town should stop automatically sending a copy of the annual report to every voter. Instead, town officials would announce the report’s availability 30 days before town meeting by publishing a notice in the newspaper.
Interested parties could then request a copy be mailed to them, or they could pick one up at the town offices. Or download it.
In this effort to save money both on printing and mailing thousands of thick booklets — many of which get returned, thus costing a town postage both ways — one might imagine the predictable divide.
Old-timers would lament traditions cast off in favor of newfangled technology. Younger voters and newcomers would laud the town not just for fiscal responsibility, but environmental stewardship. Think of all the trees saved!
But it didn’t quite turn out that way in Guilford.
Sure, there were some of those sentiments, but the reason for continuing automatic mailing of the town report was also to welcome newcomers.
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Rob Hinrichs, who spoke out passionately against Article 15, is no newcomer to Guilford. At that town meeting, his wife, Anne Rider, was feted for her many years of service to the town as a Selectboard member since 2001 (including some time spent as its chairperson), and a member of the Board of Civil Authority since 1994.
In his comments, Hinrichs was not trying to maintain the divide between long-time residents and “those from away” — he was trying to bring new people into the fold.
His argument was that if we stop sending the annual report to everyone registered to vote in Guilford, how will newcomers know they should even ask for it? Won’t this interfere with their introduction to the community, with their sense of belonging?
Don McLean, who said this year was his 50th consecutive town meeting, also spoke out against ceasing automatic mailing of the town report.
His comments questioned the wisdom of relying on technology and doing away with what he called “a more-human medium than an electronic device.” He offered an ode to vinyl LP records and independent bookstores, noting that “the interesting part of this counter-trend” is that “younger readers [are] looking for life beyond their computer screens.”
McLean also expressed worry that the town was shunning newcomers. He asked town officials “how that would work” — notifying people of the annual report’s availability. He asked what would happen if residents missed the announcement.
For whatever their reasons, enough voters felt strongly enough about changing this tradition that they defeated the article. All other articles that day passed with no debate and little dissent.
Arthur Pettee told me “all votes were unanimous” except the town report mailing.
“I did not hear one ’no’ vote” on any other articles, Pettee claimed.
Then he paused for half a beat before revealing his hearing might not be so good anymore.
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I got to speak with one of the newcomers whose concerns Hinrich and McLean spoke to during Article 15’s debate.
Chris Zappala was at his first Guilford town meeting. The previous year, he and his wife, Lisa Kuneman, had moved from their longtime home in Brattleboro.
I asked Zappala for his observations on the differences between Brattleboro’s form of municipal governance — where residents vote for their representatives to town meeting, who ostensibly represent their interests at the proceedings — and Guilford’s, where, like most towns in Vermont, each registered voter has a direct say.
“What you hear about Brattleboro is, there’s a dearth of representatives [to Town Meeting],” Zappala said, likely because of the meeting’s “all-day morass ... because you can’t say ’clusterf—k’ in the paper, right?”
With that experience, and in anticipation of attending Guilford’s Town Meeting, Zappala said, “I wondered if it would be really dreadful here.”
He said it was not. “It seemed to work pretty efficiently,” Zappala said.
“I wasn’t really up on Guilford politics before this [meeting], and where would I sit” on the issues, he said.
But when he went to the town offices to register to vote, Zappala said a copy of the annual report was there, so, “I picked it up, took it home, and read it.”
“I think it says something about human nature that the one contentious article was about mailing [the town report],” he said, but “looking at it now, it doesn’t surprise me.”
Zappala said he has felt “really welcomed” by neighbors on his street, and by coworkers who learned he moved to their town.
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Rick Zamore, who served as moderator this year, said that when he moved to Guilford 30 years ago, he felt a “big split between old-timers and newcomers,” suggesting it was less than friendly.
Vernandah Porche echoed Zamore’s observations.
Other than a “brief foray” living in Marlboro, Porche said she has been in Guilford since 1968 and “will never miss one” Town Meeting.
In the beginning, she and her other newly-arrived friends were warned to “get to know the place before you start throwing your weight around.”
“I was 23 when I first moved here, and everyone at town meeting looked so old,” Porche said.
“But now, we’re all alter kockers ,” she said, noting those same friends, once so young and green, “are now the pillars of the community.”
And to those with fewer gray hairs, hoping to make their way into the Guilford community?
“Young people: we need them!” said Porche.
That comment echoed Zamore’s announcement during Town Meeting.
“This school needs students,” he said, offering this age-old solution: “You need to keep those babies coming!”