Santeri Viinamäki/Creative Commons license/Wikimedia Commons

Three hours for democracy

It’s worth making the time for Town Meeting, which is still an example of direct democracy, where voters are the legislators and where meaningful debate can still take place

WILLIAMSVILLE — Newfane will return to an in-person town meeting at Williamsville Hall on Tuesday, March 7, and I’m glad of it. The meeting will start at 9 a.m. and most likely end by noon.

Three hours.

It’s true that attendance at Annual Town Meeting has been dwindling in recent years, and many voters blame this decline on the time and day of the meeting — a morning in the middle of the work week.

It’s also true that there’s been robust voter turnout for the two Special Town Meetings held during the pandemic. One was to see if the voters of the town would authorize the purchase of a new gravel pit; the second was to correct two administrative errors. One voter told me that this robust turnout proved that weekday evenings were a better time for townwide meetings.

On first blush, this voter seems to be right, but Town Meeting has been the subject of deep study, primarily by Frank Bryan, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Vermont.

Years of data collected at Town Meetings across the state indicate that voter turnout is influenced by the importance of what they are being asked to decide, especially if the issue is controversial.

Sadly, as more and more matters of importance, like education, are determined at the regional and state levels, less and less is left for voters to decide at Town Meeting.

We saw this happen even when Newfane formed a joint school board with Brookline and voters of both towns met to decide on the final budget.

The first year, in-person voting took place on a Saturday. Approximately 40 voters showed up and complained about the time, which conflicted with an important community sports event. The meeting was moved to a weekday evening, and even fewer voters showed up.

Because so much of our local town’s educational budget is already outside local control, voting can’t change much, so most voters don’t bother.

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But in-person Town Meeting is still an example of direct democracy, where voters are the legislators and where meaningful debate can still take place. I still see tremendous value in voting in person on how much money to spend on town roads, on running our town government, and on social services.

Road maintenance might be the single item from which every taxpayer benefits. We all use the roads and bridges. What a great opportunity to discuss what we can do about transportation in our town, something we all need.

Voters will also be asked to appropriate funds to keep our local government operational. At Town Meeting, voters who show up in person can discuss — and even change — the budget proposed by the Selectboard.

Like salaries. While much of town government is powered by citizen volunteers, the town clerk, treasurer, listers, zoning administrator, road crew, and administrative assistant to the Selectboard are all employed by the town.

Additionally, town properties require funding for maintenance, and the town clerk needs a budget to hold elections and maintain property records.

Town meeting is also where we determine how much money we will appropriate for social services, from fire, rescue, and law enforcement, all of which the town outsources.

The warning also includes appropriations for services from agencies that provide health, education, and welfare to Newfane residents. Some of these services serve young children, some elderly people, and some fragile populations facing insecurity in housing and food. Some funding is appropriated for services that enrich community life, such as the local library.

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I believe that attending our in-person Town Meeting also enriches our community life.

It’s a chance for neighbors to greet one another in person — something we’ve been largely deprived of these past three years.

It’s a time to listen to others’ opinions in person and in real time — a rarity in the time of Covid and the cause of diminished civility in the time of social media.

It’s a time to remember that we are a collection of individuals who determine our community standards by majority rule.

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These days, Town Meeting takes about three hours, less than a half-day of work.

In an ideal world, Town Meeting Day — the first Tuesday in March — would be a state holiday, making it easier for everyone to attend. Currently, by state law, Town Meeting Leave enables employees and students of voting age time off to attend their annual town meeting.

Self-employed workers often have the flexibility to rearrange their schedules and work those three hours at another time. Business owners have a chance to promote democracy by not opening for business until noon.

It’s easy to think that each of these choices will cost lost wages or lost earnings. But we must consider the greater cost to our way of life if we don’t practice democratic self-governance for three hours a year.

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