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Representative Town Meeting members fill the Brattleboro Area Middle School’s multipurpose room for Brattleboro’s 2018 Annual Town Meeting.

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‘We are the government’

A Vermont author and town moderator discusses the role of Town Meeting in building ‘civic muscles’

BRATTLEBORO—It’s easy to take Town Meeting for granted.

It is, on its surface, the annual gathering of small-town voters to debate small-town things. It’s an endearing New England tradition wrapped in local characters and tied with a string of Robert’s Rules of Order.

Town Meeting, however, is We the People made local.

Yes, it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at an hour-long debate about hiring a dog catcher, concedes Susan Clark, the town moderator for Middlesex.

Town Meeting is powerful — and it is key to building a strong civic society, said Clark, who grew up in Vermont and, in 2005, co-authored All Those in Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community with Frank M. Bryan, the retired John G. McCullough professor of political science at the University of Vermont.

Clark said that she’s always had an interest in politics, but has felt dissatisfied with general civic discourse.

“Most of the time I don’t think we hear each other very well,” she said. “So I was really intrigued by this tradition and wanted to learn more about it.”

Unlike at the national level, where the executive branch is the office of the president and the legislative branch is Congress, those dynamics change at the municipal level, Clark said.

“The thing that that we forget at the town level — on issues of finance and governance — the executive branch is the Selectboard,” she said. “And the legislative branch is everybody who turns up at Town Meeting.”

Binding decisions

Clark said that Town Meeting is not the same as a gathering in Town Hall or a public hearing — spaces that allow for public comment and for people to state their opinion.

“Whereas when we go to a Town Meeting, we are making binding decisions,” she said. “We are the government. When we sit in Town Meeting, we are the legislative branch.”

These binding decisions dictate how the municipality or a school district operates for the upcoming fiscal year. Sometimes, the binding decisions affect the municipality for decades.

“What that means is that we in Vermont, after hundreds of years of doing this year in and year out, have a sense of how to govern, Clark said. “We know how to self-govern.”

Clark said a power equivalent of Town Meeting is sitting on a jury.

As a juror, “you’re making a binding decision,” she said, and at Town Meeting, you’re “actually part of government, you’re not advising.”

A populace, not a mob

Clark said the social research she has studied points to positive outcomes for people who have served on juries.

Past jurors tend to vote more, tend to be more tolerant, tend to be able to listen to other opinions, and tend to remain open to new information, she said.

“In this day and age, when we so desperately need new answers, what we need is a civic body — we need a populace — that is open to new ideas and knows how to manage those ideas as a system of governance and not just as a mob.”

In Clark’s opinion, the reason for these outcomes is that the jurors have participated in an “empowered process.”

Town Meeting is also an empowered form of self governance.

“What happens to people who are part of an empowered deliberative process,“ Clark said. “is it changes us. Civic engagement has a powerful impact on us.”

Town Meeting — still used in New England, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Maine — is also a training ground for a civic society, she said, noting that Switzerland also uses a similar governance structure.

Clark said researchers often define “civic society” as one whose citizenry pays attention to the news, has high rates of volunteerism, has high levels of trust, has a willingness to help neighbors or strangers, and expresses tolerance.

Using these measures, she continued, the five New England states that use Town Meeting rank in the top 10 on lists that measure those qualities. According to Clark, in study after study, Vermont consistently ranks either first or second for strength of civic engagement.

Though she cautioned against presuming cause and effect, “there is really good correlative evidence that the way we have governed ourselves for hundreds of years has made a difference,” she said.

Discourse and scale

In Clark’s opinion, Town Meeting helps answer some questions of scale.

While large systems of civic engagement permit citizens to engage through voting, they lack room for discussion, she said. Town Meeting puts government into a human scale and gives citizens that room.

Suddenly, people can gather not as caricatures, Clark said, but as people who see and hear one another as humans and as neighbors.

“We can disagree and still continue to live together,” she said.

According to Clark, the number of communities across the United States that have adopted town meeting types of gatherings — whether for community discussion or for governance — has “skyrocketed” in the past 15 years.

For example, New York has adopted participatory budgeting, a model that first emerged in Brazil and looks like a town meeting, she said, adding that it’s been endorsed by the United Nations as a good way to involve people in democratic governance.

How large can Town Meeting scale?

What happens to Town Meeting when the population grows too big for community deliberation? Is it possible to keep governance at a human size?

Models can help scale up governance while keeping deliberation human, Clark said. One example: Brattleboro’s Representative Town Meeting.

Practitioners and academics in groups like the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (which Clark works with) have flipped the question, she said.

According to Clark, the conversation has turned to address the question of how to bring more power of the decision-making to a local level.

The thought is to set standards, guidelines, and goals at the national or state level and have the implementation happen at the local level.

She thinks Vermont is already seeing this style of decision-making and implementation. As an example, she offers town energy committees, groups that might act on standards set by the state or a national organization around an issue like climate change. At the same time, each committee finds solutions that work for its community.

Many people feel frustrated about the national conversation and believe that government doesn’t work, she continued.

That, she said, “isn’t an answer.”

“Saying government doesn’t work isn’t going to solve pressing issues like climate change or dealing with things like immigration,” she said. “We’ve got to make it work.”

Clark said that Town Meeting is one structure that gives local communities the power to tackle these bigger issues.

Threats to Town Meeting

According to Clark’s and Bryan’s work, three main issues threaten Town Meeting.

The first is whether the assembled body can address important issues.

“If we have the power to make a difference on an issue, we are more likely to attend,” she said, citing research by Bryan.

Political scientists, who generally believe that controversy would keep people away, find this conclusion surprising, said Clark.

But controversy does discourage turnout if people feel that they have no power to make a change, she said — or if they feel the meeting will cater to an angry mob with pitchforks.

So Selectboard members and other town officials should never shy away from the “tough stuff” issues, she said. In fact, Clark believes that if a Selectboard has a tricky budget item, the board should put it front and center, to give it its own item on the agenda.

The second threat is town size: The larger the deliberative body, the harder it is to deliberate, she said, noting that per capita, Town Meeting attendance has declined.

Clark praises Brattleboro’s Representative Town Meeting structure, which she said could be a model for larger communities to scale up the traditional Town Meeting format.

Conversely, Clark feels “deeply concerned” with Act 46, Vermont’s education governance law, and she has testified before the Legislature to express those misgivings.

Act 46 is a good example of what happens when democracy scales up beyond what the community can grapple with, said Clark, who worries that the consolidated school boards proscribed by the school-reform legislation will create a gap between people and their school representatives.

She believes the “impact will be dramatic.” And, she warned, “without a huge influx of new ideas and energy around engaging people,” schools risk losing part of their local support networks.

Finally, Clark said, switching the structure of Town Meeting from public floor votes to secret Australian ballot weakens local governance.

“You get more people voting if you use Australian ballots, but not as many as you might think,” she said.

Also, people voting by Australian ballot usually don’t attend informational meetings and might not understand an issue as fully as those who are willing to sit through a debate.

“It’s a question of quality over quantity: you might have more people show up, but will they be informed?” she asked.

Changing cultures, changing towns

Clark noted that changes in society — such as more people in the workplace, longer commutes for employees, and individualized entertainment — has changed how community members interact.

Fewer meet during a community potluck or while volunteering for the local fire department, she said.

These factors have affected volunteerism in small towns and have stifled the number of people running for local office, she said.

According to Clark, studies on social capital have shown that these changes have impacted the fabric of society.

Communities with strong social capital have a willingness to step in and take responsibility for themselves, she said — as so many Vermonters did in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

No one waited for the government to save them, she said. Instead, people grabbed the shovels, started a phone tree, and got to work.

How do communities strengthen their Town Meeting?

Maybe towns need to change the time and date of their meeting so more people can attend, she suggested. Or organize the agenda differently — like her town, Middlesex. The town of fewer than 2,000 residents in Washington County votes on its budget at a predetermined time.

Highlighting issues is important as well.

Again, if something is new or different, “put a big flag on it,” she said. “Because there’s always interesting stuff in the budget and you’ll always find something that matters to people.”

Offering child care increases participation, she said. And food.

“All the best-attended Town Meetings have food,” she said.

Towns should also recognize that Town Meeting was never designed to be the only time a community meets.

“It’s a lot to expect citizens to make meaning out of a whole year of work [during] one Robert’s Rules–run get-together,” she said.

So towns need to create meetings that are fun, informative, and allow participation beyond standing at a microphone.

For example, an addition to a town forest. “That’s got ‘field trip’ written all over it,” she said.

Also, she suggested, communities might want to explore new meeting models that have developed in other communities — Representative Annual Town Meeting, participatory budgeting, and other models — and marry them to the Town Meeting traditions.

Especially because of all the competition for people’s time, “we definitely need to be more creative,” she said.

‘Public participation is like exercise’

Public comment — both as a speaker and a listener — can feel uncomfortable.

Clark said that she found something surprising about public participation while researching her book Slow Democracy.

“Public participation is like exercise,” she said. “As much as you want to try and avoid it, more is better than less. And if you only try and do it infrequently, it’s going to hurt most of the time.”

“Whereas if you do it on a regular basis, you keep the civic muscles limber and in shape and it’s not going to hurt so much,” she said.

By doing that regular civic exercise-slash-engagement — whether through Town Meetings, or field trips, or other ideas to connect with voters, like surveys — that engagement will improve trust, she said, and Town Meetings will become less painful and more productive.

“The thing that’s ironic about the title Slow Democracy [...] is that it feels so slow to the leaders to begin with but it’s almost always faster,” she said.

It takes more effort up front to gather input, “but then the proposal passes, and you don’t have pushback and freak-outs and endless lawsuits,” she said.

It matters if we take Town Meeting for granted

Clark pointed out adverse consequences “if we assume that democracy is always going to be there for us, and we don’t exercise it, and assume it will be there when we need it.”

“I think we are going to be sorely disappointed when we try to govern ourselves — when we don’t have the skills, when we don’t have the trust, when we don’t have the patterns that create the fabric of our society,” she said.

Town Meeting is a civic muscle that’s hard to build back up when it atrophies. When elections roll around, someone who has never participated in a government system doesn’t know what it means to govern. As a result, voters might elect to office a candidate who has no command of process and governing with integrity.

To be a part of regular governance is what a democracy, is and that participation is what determines whether that democracy survives, she said, noting that Town Meeting is part of a bigger piece of civic fabric stretching from the towns up to the national level.

Town Meetings have their procedure. They have their slowness. They have the neighbor who hogs the microphone for 45 minutes.

Town Meetings are also democracy in action.

And they have the power to create change.

After all, said Clark, the Boston Tea Party began at a Town Meeting.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #499 (Wednesday, February 27, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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