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A place for deep conversations?

Town Meeting, by design, is structured for decision-making, not discussions

BRATTLEBORO—Attending Annual Representative Town Meeting has often been an exercise in endurance as meetings, at least in the past 10 years, have stretched well beyond the eight-hour mark.

Frustration expressed by some members around the lack of deep conversations at this year’s meeting, however, highlighted ARTM’s limitation in this regard.

By the end of the night, the number of meeting members began to dwindle, prompting remaining members to consider — and ultimately vote down — a non-binding proposal to move the “other business” portion of the meeting, which usually takes place at the end of the proceedings, to after the lunch break for future ARTMs.

Supporters argued that the other business segment — traditionally the time of the meeting when members offer resolutions or make non-binding proposals — is when members can discuss the issues that matter to them.

The rest of the meeting, they said, reflects the municipality’s goals. They also pointed out that people are too tired at the end of a long meeting to stay and discuss deeper concepts.

Crispe noted that in the past, ARTM tended to take less time and so members had more energy to discuss “the more conceptual” issues.

But is the lack of deep conversations by members simply a function of running out of steam?

According to Kurt Daims, the answer is no. In his opinion, Town Meeting members behaved passively this year and did not act as the town’s “source of ideas, proposals, and commentary,” he said.

The debate around the Community Marketing Initiative centered on a zero-sum proposition. Speakers presumed a Love Brattleboro campaign that should only support working-class community members, or only help businesses, or only cater to tourists, or only uplift the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities — but speakers offered little, if any, acknowledgment of the possibility of mutual benefits to multiple parties.

What if members sought out the common ground of their experience, needs, and knowledge and then built solutions from there?

Meeting Member HB Lozito, District 2, touched on these types of solutions when they complemented programs like Everyone Eats — programs that, in their opinion, supported the business and residential communities.

Town Meeting structured for decision-making but not deep-conversing

According to educator and Middlesex Town Moderator Susan Clark, Vermont’s Town Meeting structure is built to foster decision-making. The structure is less conducive to deep discussions.

This is why Clark, the co-author of Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home, stresses that “Town Meeting can’t happen [just] once a year.” Instead, communities need to build opportunities for conversation and relationship building.

Members can meet with one another or constituents as long as the gathering is less than 74 members, which constitutes a quorum.

At that point, under the Town Charter, holding a public meeting comes with more strings attached. A request for more information from Town Attorney Bob Fisher was not answered by press time.

Member Tony Duncan (District 3) reflected in a conversation after the meeting about whether ARTM could use some of its structures, such as Robert’s Rules of Order, differently to better reflect members’ sentiment.

He pointed to the debate around the Selectboard stipends as an example of a vote that might have gone differently — the stipends would have increased, perhaps not as much — if Robert’s Rules had allowed for more flexibility during the debate.

Meeting Member Millicent Cooley (District 3) a relatively new resident, also reflected post-ARTM with a mixture of excitement and curiosity.

As a former resident of New Jersey, Cooley felt “thrilled” to experience what to her “looked like real democracy” through the ARTM.

But this year’s meeting also left her with questions. Besides showing up for ARTM once a year, she wonders what systems, requirements, or structures exist for members? Are members expected to engage from the districts they’re elected to represent?

If not, does lack of a formal engagement process between members and constituents represent ARTM’s greatest limitation.

“How do we understand the views of all the people in our districts and be accountable to those people?” Cooley asked.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #579 (Wednesday, September 16, 2020). This story appeared on page A2.

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