No ideal day for Town Meeting
Newfane voters pore over their annual town reports during a discussion at the 2014 Annual Town Meeting.

No ideal day for Town Meeting

Attendance is declining at Annual Town Meeting in small Vermont towns — maybe because the critically important gathering takes place at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday. But are other times any better in this complex world?

NEWFANE — I'm disheartened that the politicking for president takes up so much bandwidth, while interest, concern, and planning for Town Meeting takes up so little, especially when what we decide at Town Meeting can have more direct effect on how we live, both individually and in community.

I'm not saying that national politics aren't important; they are. But while people in Washington are grandstanding at best - and grinding our democracy into the ground at worst - we can accomplish important policies for the betterment of our communities at Town Meeting.

Recent local initiatives around the state include communities installing fiber-optic connectivity; mapping a path toward renewable energy; dealing with trash; protecting waterways; providing community fire protection and emergency services; educating our youth; and bolstering, funding, and providing social services for those in need with a minimum of bureaucracy.

This is not a pie-in-the-sky list; its initiatives have been or are being taken in communities around Vermont.

The catch is that to effect any of these policies - to harness our ability to create proactive, progressive, equitable, welcoming, and compassionate communities - we have to spend three hours a year at Town Meeting.

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Attendance at Town Meeting has been dropping across the state. In Newfane, where I live, many citizens believe this has to do with when we meet: at 9 a.m. on the first Tuesday in March.

They may be right.

While meeting during the day on the first Tuesday in March is traditional, it's no longer required by law. Town Meeting can now legally take place on Saturday, Sunday, or Monday preceding the first Tuesday in March. And some towns do just that.

Additionally, Town Meeting doesn't have to take place during what we call “regular working hours,” but it can be scheduled to start in the afternoon or evening.

Some towns have found a better time for their respective community meetings; others have tried other days and times in an attempt to promote better attendance, only to be disappointed with even-lower voter turnout.

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Here's the problem: There is no ideal day for Town Meeting.

For those who report to an office for what we call “regular working hours,” Tuesday at 9 a.m. interferes with their jobs. But for shift workers, Tuesday morning might be best.

Saturday morning, it turns out, interferes with weekend chores, kids' sports events, and deep sleep - except for those who work weekends. Even though the majority of Vermonters are not traditional churchgoers, they still tend to reserve Sundays for rest, reflection, and renewal. Monday is a weekday with the same issues as Tuesday.

Nor is there an ideal time for Town Meeting. The data show that fewer women attend evening meetings, and bad weather at night will keep more people away than bad weather during daylight hours.

Finally, for those who are housebound or who care for young children, the ill, and the elderly, there's no good meeting time whatsoever.

No matter when Town Meeting is scheduled, the timing will exclude some person or group.

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So, what can my town do?

I can think of two things: 1) petition the Selectboard to warn an article to change Town Meeting to a different day and/or time; and 2) arrange now to be at Town Meeting on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

The irony is that a warned article to change Town Meeting is controversial and substantial enough to bring voters to the floor. Those who study democratic processes, including Town Meeting, have learned that attendance at the polls and at Town Meeting goes up with the importance and controversy of the decisions to be made.

The difference between going to the polls and attending Town Meeting, however, is great. At the polls, a voter has only two choices: for or against. At Town Meeting, voters can discuss the questions they are being asked to decide, and they can amend them.

Deliberation allows people to hear different opinions, change their opinions, find common ground, compromise, and create new solutions to hard problems.

The problem of finding time to attend Town Meeting, however, will not go away.

While all Vermont voters have the option of petitioning their employer in writing for leave without pay to attend Town Meeting, not all Vermonters work in Vermont, and not all voters can afford a day without pay.

There will always be barriers to attending Town Meeting regardless of when it is held. There is no day and time that suits everyone.

So at some point, it's up to each voter to decide between the difficulties of finding three hours a year to participating in direct democracy - or the hardships of living with the decisions others made without hearing your good ideas.

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