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At Town Meeting, civics meets civility

As Vermont moves into the future and new residents enter the fray, panelists say communities will need, more than ever, the principles of the storied New England tradition

The Feb. 24 event was presented by Vermont Civics Collaborative (VCC) and the Vermont Humanities Council and sponsored through a $1.96 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to the Federation of State Humanities Councils and the national initiative “Why It Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation.” To view upcoming events, visit bit.ly/602-civics.

—On the surface, the Annual Town Meeting is about voting on municipal business, such as raising funds for the town budget or taking on debt for a new snowplow.Buried under the meeting warning and Robert’s Rules of Order, however, are the principles of self governance and community cohesion: a government of the community, by the community, and for the community.But holding these conversations and making decisions require civic muscles that also need regular workouts.It’s these civic muscles refined through a tradition of Town Meeting that prompted panelists with the Vermont Civics Collaborative and the Vermont Humanities Council to ask: What can Town Meeting teach us about bridging divides?The answer? A lot.If we’re willing to put in the work.

Creating trust, reinforcing ties

—“We have never needed Town Meeting as much as we do now and as much as we will need it in the future,” said Erica Heilman. “This [is a] remarkable opportunity to throw a town into a room together and argue civilly and learn [from] each other and come out with some compromise decisions together.”Heilman is the creator and producer of the podcast Rumble Strip, recognized by The Atlantic as the top podcast of 2020.The Feb. 24 event used an episode, “Town Meeting” (rumblestripvermont.com/2021/02/town-meeting), as a touchstone and conversation starter for Heilman to ask moderators about why the institution matters to them.She said that while producing the episode, she realized that Town Meeting achieves what she tries to accomplish with her podcast: “[to] give all these people an opportunity to talk about what they really know, what they care about, sometimes what they’re afraid of.”“And because of what Town Meeting is trying to achieve, it’s incumbent on everyone to really try to understand what this person is saying and why,” she said.In the panelists’ opinions, the power of Town Meeting has less to do with the annual meeting itself. Instead, the power comes from a collection of civic skills, such as group deliberation and interactions with neighbors that are anything but anonymous and continue at the grocery store, the gas station, and the post office.A unique quality of Town Meeting is that it provides attendees with the ability to influence the final outcome through debate and amendments, said the night’s panel moderator, Susan Clark, a town Moderator in Middlesex and coauthor of two books on Town Meeting, Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home (with Woden Teachout) and All Those in Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community (with Frank Bryan).According to the panelists, these meetings also increases trust in local government and reinforces community ties.That said, Vermont communities can’t take the Town Meeting tradition for granted. As an underused muscle will weaken, so will the self-governance benefits of Town Meeting without practice.This is one of the concerns about municipalities potentially shifting permanently to conducting town business through Australian ballot. While it might increase voter turnout, a secret ballot does not allow for debate or amendments, thus decreasing the amount of influence and interaction residents have over their government’s actions.

Reflecting on an institution

—Vermont traditionally holds annual Town Meeting and local elections (technically, one of the articles on the meeting warrant) on the first Tuesday in March. In an attempt to control spread of the coronavirus, the Legislature passed emergency legislation allowing towns to hold their 2021 meetings by Australian ballot.Most municipalities have opted to do so, while a few others have postponed their in-person meetings until late spring.Clark said with this pause in the normal routine of Town Meeting, the panelists thought it would be a good time to reflect on the institution.She reminded the audience that Town Meeting differs from many other community gatherings, such as the town hall meeting format popular in political campaigns.In a Town Meeting, the residents are the legislature, not simply the audience listening to a politician on the stage.The form of government is a New England tradition, she said. The only other country Clark knows that practices this model of self-governance is Switzerland.Data collected over the years on Town Meeting attendance has shown that issues matter, she said.According to Clark, political scientists have theorized that Americans hate controversy. Yet the data shows that attendance at Town Meeting increases the more controversial the issues are.“So the difference is power,” she said. “Voters do not want to go to a town hall meeting where they yell but have no power. But, as we heard in the podcast, if they know they can make a difference, they do come.”Referencing work by Bryan, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Vermont and a staunch defender of the traditions of Town Meeting, Clark said that Town Meetings tend to be more inclusive than other forms of democratic participation.According to Clark, given Vermont’s history with eugenics and its marginalization of Indigenous populations such as the Abenaki or immigrant groups such as the French-Canadians, Bryan had assumed that Town Meetings would mirror other political structures.The data that he collected, though limited, did not show any link between a town’s socioeconomic indicators and the people who attended or spoke at Town Meeting.“This data suggests that Town Meetings are more welcoming than America’s ballot system,” she said.

History and identity

—Northern Vermont University-Lyndon history professor and author Paul M. Searls said one of the moments from the podcast episode that stayed with him was a town moderator from Calais, who described “the beautiful thing about town meeting” as “a chance to listen to different voices and different opinions.”Operating on a small scale is one of the foundational pieces of “the Vermont way of life” culture that the state has fostered, he said.“And the small scale of things really is the essential factor that has both good things and bad things about it. But that makes it such a Vermont institution,” he added. “Very importantly, it’s a forum to which Vermonters can collectively work through their internal divisions.”According to Searls, in the 19th century, Vermont developed a geographical divide that eventually created an ideological divide. A new railroad infrastructure tended to concentrate economic activity in depot towns, siphoning professionals, entrepreneurs, and young people from the hill towns, he said.“Big towns thought the people who’d stayed behind in rural Vermont were losers,” he said. “Whereas, people in small towns thought that, if you could figure out how to persist in a [rural] town, then you were the winner.”He aded that Town Meeting meant a lot in the smaller towns.“People in small towns were able to manage the pace of change. They had strong communities that were consensus driven,” he said.In Searls’ opinion, however, the biggest turning point in Vermont’s history took place in the 1890s, with the start of a tourism boom that led to an economic conundrum for the state.“Back then, what [the state was] selling was the physical landscape, not the human one,” Searls said. “‘Look how beautiful Vermont is, look at its countryside,’ but very little speaking about what it was like to actually live in these places.”“They recognized that Vermont needed to grow but it needed to appear not to grow at all,” he added.In his opinion, the paradox of the 20th century is that keeping Vermont looking pretty takes work that sometimes impacts people’s lives.According to Searls, by the 20th century, Vermonters as a whole ended up wanting three things: a beautiful scenic landscape, a working landscape that provides jobs for all kinds of people, and a democratic landscape in which a variety of people can participate. He described those three ideals as “tricky” to have all at once.“[Town Meeting is] still probably the most important place where we can collectively move towards proving that life isn’t a zero-sum game and that we can reconcile all of these contrasting and competing goals without making too many sacrifices,” he said.

Community containers and co-creating

—As a University of Vermont social geography professor, Cheryl Morse studies communities and the relationships between people and places. She says Vermont and Maine have the highest percentage of residents living in municipalities of 2,500 or fewer people.From her perspective, this makes her ask: What is happening in these small towns that they support the Town Meeting form of government?As a geographer, Morse first takes note of where the meeting happens, which is usually at local institutions such as schools, churches, or Town Halls.“So we are having these meetings in containers that are institutional locations within our town,” she said. “We’re showing our flexibility as communities when we take any space we have available that’s big enough to hold us and use that space for this important annual event.”She pointed out the importance of the structure, rules, and process of Town Meeting.“It offers us a space to listen, because one of the rules is, you speak one at a time, you say your piece until you’re done, and then you sit down,” she said. “You always state your name and where you’re from when you speak, and so there’s this slowing down of the process where people can actually listen.”Finally, Morse cited as a hallmark the ability to modify an article into a proposal that is finally voted — a process that comes about because community members are coming together to create it.“And that’s so different from just voting — that’s actually being co-creative in the moment with our neighbors,” she said. “And we all know we can’t do that when we’re voting by Australian ballot.”Finally, Morse said the small size of Town Meeting means the proceedings unfold on a human scale. People can get their minds and arms around the meeting and its warned articles.“You’re going to meet these people that maybe you politely disagreed with in Town Meeting at the store, at the school, at the recycle drop-off spot,” she said. “There is a huge incentive built in to do these things and have these conversations in a civil way that are about the issues; they’re not about the person or the identity that that person is bringing into Town Meeting.”

Compromise depends on understanding

—“I’ve always had deep feelings about Town Meeting, and I was always vaguely worried that they were romantic,” Heilman said.“I always find [Town Meeting] remarkable, that you have to try to understand one another’s differences in order to come to some compromise,” she said. “Particularly right now, I think that is profoundly useful.”Heilman said that it’s awe inspiring to witness people saying what they believe.At Town Meeting, you always “see people shine,” she said. “And that may sound esoteric but, to me, it’s a remarkable experience to see the lights go on and see somebody really go take a big risk and stand up and say something that they really believe.“There is some bridge that gets built between people when that happens,” Heilman said.The COVID-19 pandemic has upturned traditional Town Meeting this year, but attendance at the annual gathering has waned to the point that the panelists acknowledge that the model is struggling.Quoting data gathered by Bryan, Clark said, “In 2005, the 30-year average attendance was 20.5 percent [of registered voters] at a Town Meeting, but attendance has been declining, and I think his most recent average was out at something like 11 percent.”Clark added that when towns have switched to Australian ballot, their numbers did not see a huge jump in voter participation.“So you sort of have to think about what you’re comparing when you’re comparing that quantity and quality,” she said.

Small is beautiful

—Clark said that in general, the Town Meeting model works better in small towns than large cities.“Small towns get much better per-capita attendance than large towns,” she said. “In 2019, towns of under 2,500 population have something like more than twice the per-capita attendance of larger towns, which explains why so many small towns have retained their meetings.”The timing of when to hold Town Meeting has remained a steady question, Clark said.Even despite the ability to attend remotely, “Offering, child care is absolutely critical to women’s participation, even still,” she said.“Power matters tremendously, meaning that people don’t just come to talk. So Selectboards can maybe be a little more transparent about what’s in the budget, communicating ahead of time, so that rather than [saying], ‘Oh, I hope they don’t notice that this is going up 2 percent,’ instead of really trying to help people understand what this meeting has to do with them.”Communicating information and procedure in a variety of ways is important, especially for people from different cultures and backgrounds, she said. For example, not everyone understands what’s at stake in a warrant article through data. Many people need the scenario to be told in the form of a story.Morse has studied why people remain in or return to the areas of their childhood. People have been leaving Vermont for a long time, and, in recent years, the need to address these issues has really captured the state’s attention, she said.However, in the last year, Vermont has seen an increase in the number of people moving to the state because of COVID-19. In the future, as climate change and weather extremes are predicted to make life more perilous in some parts of the country, she expects to see more refugees.Morse’s question to communities is: How do we invite new Vermonters into the Town Meeting, its rules, and its traditions?“So that this becomes an important part of their entry into Vermont society and into town society?” she asked. “What can we do to make sure that this doesn’t seem like a closed, quaint, small thing, [one where] you already have to know all the rules to go, but instead it is something that everybody is invited into very actively?”Heilman added that while producing the Rumble Strip episode, she noticed that at almost every meeting the moderator asked if anyone was new.This kind of welcoming and outreach is an important priority, she said.The panelists also noted that over the decades, more power has shifted to the state and away from municipalities, a trend that has also lessened the power of Town Meeting.Clark added that when people talk about local decision making, they often speak in terms of Town Meeting versus Australian ballot.Those aren’t the only options, she said, pointing to Brattleboro’s Representative Town Meeting, where three municipal districts elect representatives to vote at what is otherwise a standard New England Town Meeting.She also pointed out Switzerland’s governance, which includes a direct democratic ability to weigh in on federal issues at the ballot box and to propose amendments to that country’s constitution.What’s unique and worth preserving about Vermont’s Town Meeting tradition, the panelists seemed to agree, are the practices of self-governance and holding community conversations.“What we see is that Town Meeting waits for us and if we invest in it, it’s there when we need it,” Clark said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #602 (Wednesday, March 3, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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