A real democracy requires your participation

Participating in town governance as an elected official or a voter at your Town Meeting can bring about meaningful changes close to home. But you have to be there.

NEWFANE — The current dysfunction among politicians in Washington is perhaps the biggest and best reason for ordinary citizens to participate in local governance.

I'm talking Town Meeting. It's coming right up.

As I write, Selectboards around the county are finalizing municipal budgets for next year and drafting warnings for Town Meetings in March. Sadly, many are doing this work with little or no public input.

This situation is hardly surprising, given how demoralizing it is to read the headlines about the harm inflicted on furloughed federal workers and their families while legislative and executive branches play a giant game of chicken with all our lives - and collecting their generous paychecks all the while.

In contrast, those who have stepped up to serve on a municipal board are fulfilling public service in the most basic and altruistic way. Unlike Washington - or even Montpelier - these public servants take on more responsibility than power and receive little thanks and less pay for their efforts.

As Frank Bryan, the pre-eminent scholar of Vermont Town Meeting writes in Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works, “Real democracy works better in small places - dramatically better.”

But real democracy requires participation, and the more who participate the better.

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So I'm both saddened and concerned at the decline in participation in town governance and attendance at Town Meetings across the state generally, and in Newfane, where I live, in particular.

I know about busy lives, and I know about feeling overwhelmed by all the bad news in the world. But I would argue that participating in town governance as an elected official and/or as a citizen legislator can bring about meaningful changes close to home.

After all, the decisions we make about town highways, fire safety, and social services are decisions that have immediate impact on our lives. Unlike money withheld from our paychecks, we benefit - or suffer - directly from the financial decisions we make at Town Meeting.

But it's not all highways and fire trucks, either.

Part of every town budget in Newfane includes money to support local social service agencies that aid our most vulnerable populations, from children to the elderly, as well as funds for enrichment of our social, cultural, and civic lives.

We appropriate money to promote community-wide restorative justice practices, to preserve cultural artifacts (like the West River Railroad Museum), and to renovate our antique halls where town meetings take place.

I'm delighted that this year, a new boiler and snug insulation will allow Newfane voters and election officials to enjoy unprecedented comfort at this year's Town Meeting in Williamsville Hall, thanks to fundraising efforts coupled with local appropriations.

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While deciding how to spend our local tax dollars is an exercise is determining our community values, money is not the only measure of what's important.

For instance, in response to the onset of nationally endorsed xenophobia, Newfane passed a non-binding resolution “to welcome and protect the rights of immigrants and refugees who are already in or who seek to come to our community.”

More humbly, Newfane voters have also pushed for measures to curb speeding in town.

While these two measures appear widely divergent in content, they are similar in kind: citizen legislators gathering, debating and deciding together to take action.

There's no question that Vermont's small towns are no longer tight-knit agrarian communities where life takes place at a horse-drawn pace.

But where there's high-speed internet, more people are able to work where they live.

With more emphasis on local food, more small farms are reinventing Vermont's agricultural landscape.

With more awareness about reducing our individual carbon footprints by driving less, there's hope for a reinvention of small-town life where civility and self-determination thrive.

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Anyone who wants to run for a local elected position has until Monday, Jan. 28 at 5 p.m. to turn in their petition and consent form to their municipal clerk.

And anyone who wants to attend Town Meeting in March can start preparing now by taking these three steps: 1) make sure you're registered to vote; 2) find out where and when your Town Meeting will be; and 3) arrange to be there.

Vermont voters have a right - by state law - to take unpaid leave in order to attend Town Meeting, provided their employer can operate without them and the employee notifies the employer in writing seven days prior. The law is certainly imperfect, but it's a start.

Some towns have changed the time and day of their Town Meetings to the Saturday or Monday before the first Tuesday in March, officially Town Meeting Day in the state.

But in the world of “open 24/7” I think it would be better to declare Town Meeting Day a state holiday, closing schools and businesses.

This is just the sort of issue that we could start discussing at Town Meeting. But to talk about it, you have to be there.

This year, I challenge anyone who regularly attends Town Meeting to invite and bring someone who doesn't.

And if you are someone who's never been, I urge you to check it out.

You may say, “I can't afford to go.” I say, “Can you really afford not to?”

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