Hands-on involvement in government — for those who know how

In Brattleboro, Representative Town Meeting is underused and underestimated. Members don’t know the charter, and they don’t know Robert’s Rules. If people study these things, they will see how to be responsible active members.

BRATTLEBORO — Sometimes people ask the wrong things from the Selectboard - things that should be brought to Representative Town Meeting (RTM). This happens because they don't know the town charter, which is the operator's manual for town government.

At a recent Selectboard candidate forum, there was a show of hands of people who had read the town charter, and hardly anyone in the audience raised a hand. The surprise was that some candidates for the Selectboard and even a current member of the board had not read the charter, either.

Nowadays every computer program and app is “user friendly,” so that people could use them without any preparation or study. Maybe this is contributing to people's sense that they can just dive in and start up anything, whether it's a cell phone, a chainsaw, or a town government.

Hands-on shouldn't mean brain-off.

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The Brattleboro charter has provisions for hands-on involvement in government. The first, very familiar, provision is in Article 3, the petition process.

Brattleboro Common Sense (BCS) has used the petition process to bring issues of public concern to the ballot, including the sustainability coordinator position and the youth vote amendment. In 2010, BCS won a court decision protecting the petition process from censorship by town government.

But in all these instances BCS studied the issues and the laws and had an attorney for regular consultation. BCS helped 350.org with their first resolution when they started up in Brattleboro, and we will help individuals who want to advance issues to a vote of the people or to a vote at RTM.

Representative Town Meeting is the other hand of hands-on government. It is a representative assembly - like the Selectboard, but it requires a much-smaller commitment from its members, also known as representatives (“reps”).

Even so, the RTM is underused and underestimated. Members don't know the charter, and they don't know the rules of procedure (Robert's Rules).

Some blame the rules for their own failings. I believe there is nothing wrong with Robert's Rules except that people don't know how to use them.

I have advocated for education of RTM. Last year I proposed an educational booklet on town finance (which was approved), and while serving on the education subcommittee of RTM, I proposed an educational packet, including the rules of order and the town charter.

If people study these things, they will see how to be responsible active members of Representative Town Meeting.

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BCS promotes RTM reform every year, and meeting members know some reform is in order.

In 2021, Representative Town Meeting formed a steering committee, which made an early commitment to operate without rules. Perhaps this was an excess of political correctness, and in the resulting disorder and ignorance little was accomplished.

The committee's proposal at the Selectboard meeting Jan. 4 was about funding lunch for RTM members. Another decision of the committee was to not discuss proposals for charter amendments. This made the RTM job easier, but the indecision was lazy and undemocratic - proposals are our job. (I and one other member resigned immediately.)

This committee should be seen as a misguided response to the recent long Representative Town Meetings, and I am sure it does not represent the majority of members.

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One simple remedy to a long meeting is a motion to recess overnight. Again, you can see how knowledge of the rules is the solution, not the problem.

It should be noted that the committee produced a survey of issues that concern RTM members. The survey indicated that a majority wished to review Robert's Rules, but the committee took no action on it. I personally oppose a review of the rules, but it must be considered at RTM, because the survey was so clear.

Issues are rarely brought up by members. Here's why.

The Selectboard compiles the agenda and puts the time for the public's ideas and reps' proposals, guidance, and the like at the end of the meeting, labeling it “other business,” although the ideas of the meeting body are RTM's chartered purpose. (The board wants mostly to assure that the budget gets passed: they work hard on the budget and don't want to do it over.)

Here is another reason.

Before the RTM and moderator position were created in 1959, the Selectboard presided over voters at the front of (then-traditional) Town Meeting.

The Selectboard still keeps its traditional position, contrary to the town charter. The RTM is a guiding body, and the Selectboard is a ministerial body that tends to everyday affairs, as plainly required by the town charter (Article 4 section 6):

According to the charter, the Selectboard shall “have the general oversight of the affairs and property of the town not committed by law to the care of any particular officer,” including, but not limited to appointing police officers and “the lighting of bridges and sidewalks.”

Their duties make the Selectboard's long and varied list. Guidance, ideas, proposals, and comments are not on it. These are given by town charter (Article 2 section 4) to the care of other officers of the town, namely the RTM members.

It calls representative town meeting “a guiding body for the town and a source of ideas, proposals and comments.”

The charter says “members of” the selectboard shall be members of RTM, indicating that they attend RTM as individuals, not as a group. Nothing in the charter gives the board members at RTM any special status.

When we have meetings in person again, members of the board should sit with everyone else, not at a table at the front of the meeting with their own microphones.

They should not have greater comfort, greater visibility, and greater opportunity to speak than the other reps. Doing so creates an unintentional concentration of power.

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Many reps feel they can't be properly informed and guided without the Selectboard in front. Of course they feel that way if don't inform themselves on the issues or if they haven't read the charter.

Through the year RTM members (reps) have the same information available to them as the Selectboard. They do not need the board for guidance. Reps are supposed to be the guidance !

Again, people fail in this because they don't know what to do, and the selectboard members are glad to take the lead. The 2021 RTM agenda had 25 proposals from the board. All were approved, most by huge margins - around 90 percent - and many after a motion by the majority to end debate.

This means the majority says so and they stop the minority from talking about it. These are not signs of healthy democracy.

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I am writing this because RTM at its core is a beautiful thing. The charter says of RTM, “It exercises exclusively all powers vested in the voters of the Town.” With the pressures of social distancing, the failure of the Steering Committee, and the temptation to rubber-stamp the Selectboard, I am afraid we will lose it.

Representative Town Meeting needs people who are ready for a greater commitment to democracy. Brattleboro Common Sense is trying to invigorate the civic activity of Brattleboro and grow its influence outside the town.

That's our mission. And part of that is the RTM.

* * *

What needs to be done? Members of Brattleboro Common Sense have negotiated some improvements in the architecture and process of the meeting, and we aim to do more of the kinds of thing that we need to invigorate our democracy:

• The agendas should be changed so that RTM has time to fulfill its duty of proposals and guidance.

• Choose me for moderator of RTM on Tuesday, March 1. I will ensure that people's proposals are considered, whether they are changes of procedure or election-reform amendments. Send your proposals to your town representative, to the new moderator (whoever is selected), or to BCS.

• Promote the BCS Youth Vote Amendment, which allows 16-year-olds to serve in RTM. Maybe we will have a few smart high-schoolers at RTM.

• Contact BCS to promote an active responsible RTM.

• We have a new friend at corporate Home Depot trying to broker an agreement to use the vacant store on Putney Road for in-person Representative Town Meeting in 2023 (maybe even 2022). We have informal approval from the Department of Health for designating RTM as an educational pod for an in-person meeting; formal committee approval is pending. Maybe you can help with this.

• Join BCS's meeting about RTM at 5:10 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 28.

There are national and global - not just local - issues affecting this town. We need a hands-on approach, and we need all hands on deck.

Responsible Brattleboro people can attend and speak at Annual Representative Town Meeting on Saturday, March 19.

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