September 18, 2014

Town meeting plagued by low turnout, fading interest

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Some claim that Australian ballot dealt death blow

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Mike Coates summed up the feelings of tradition-loving Vermonters as Williston debated the fate of its town meeting in 2000.

The town was considering moving voting on the municipal budget from town meeting to an Australian ballot. Opponents predicted it would sound the death knell for town meeting, a 200-plus-year tradition. Supporters said it would improve the democratic process by allowing more people to vote.

Coates said he had walked up to the statue of Thomas Chittenden, Williston’s founder and the state’s first governor, at the Statehouse in Montpelier the previous week and asked Chittenden how he felt about the proposed switch.

“I swear I saw a tear in his eye,” Coates said.

The remark drew laughs and was reported by media outlets as a defining comment in a year other towns were considering a switch to Australian ballot.

Still, by a 233-150 margin, Williston voters opted to vote on the municipal budget with Australian balloting. Later that month, by a similar margin, voters also moved the school budget off the town meeting agenda.

Five years later, town meetings in Williston continue to muddle along with often-tiny turnouts. This year’s agenda, like those the past two years, will include mainly informational items and likely draw only a couple hundred Williston voters.

Even two Selectboard members have opted not to attend this time. It seems those who predicted that Australian balloting would hurt the tradition were right.

Last year, for example, only 195 of the town’s 6,072 registered voters showed up, a 3 percent turnout. Meanwhile, 34 percent of registered voters cast Australian ballots.

“That’s the result of it,” Coates said Monday. “Pretty soon, town meeting as we know it is not going to be worth going to.”

Selectboard member Jeff Fehrs also has regrets.

“We really lost something when somebody could no longer stand up in town meeting and ask, ‘Why do we need to spend X amount of money on this?’ and then the budget could be changed,” said Fehrs, who along with Ginny Lyons, the board’s chairwoman, don’t plan on attending this year’s town meeting. Both have family obligations.

Not everyone misses the old-fashioned town meeting. Fred Nye, who made the motion to approve Australian balloting in 2000, said the current system is a better gauge of voter sentiment.

Nye said raising your hand to vote against a popular item during a public meeting was intimidating.

For example, Nye said someone voting against the school budget would have to worry about being accused of not caring about children. That problem is solved with Australian ballots.

“You get a truer picture of how people really feel,” Nye said. “I would be uncomfortable standing up and saying I’m against the school budget.”

He also noted that because more people vote by Australian ballot then ever attended town meeting, the result is more democratic.

“The issue was that 200 or 300 people were deciding things for 5,000 to 6,000 people,” Nye said. “Does that sound fair?”

George Gerecke, who supported the switch to Australian balloting, noted a logistical concern: The town had simply run out of room to put everyone during town meeting. Williston Central School, the venue in recent years, only seats a few hundred people.

“Once we got up to (a population of) 6,000 or 7,000 people, we didn’t have a big enough place,” Gerecke said. “People were being disenfranchised.”

Pure democracy in action

A new book, “All Those In Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community” by University of Vermont professor Frank Bryan and Woodbury College faculty member Susan Clark, asserts that Australian balloting dooms town meetings.

“In a way, the Australian ballot is worse than deadly, because is doesn’t kill town meeting quickly,” the authors write. “And the execution is dishonest. We are told that it will save town meeting, while the reality is that it poisons it and lets it die slowly, sparing the executioner the moment of death and the acceptance of responsibility.”

The book is a passionate defense of traditional town meeting as pure democracy. While conceding that more people participate through Australian balloting, the authors argue that town meeting produces a higher-quality democratic process and proves that people can govern themselves without the intervention of politicians.

“What is gloriously unique about New England (and especially Vermont) is that this principle of face-to-face rulemaking for exclusive membership groups (like the church) became face-to-face rulemaking for a civil society — a community bound by geography,” the authors say. “And these laws were made face-to-face, in assemblies of the whole.”

A neighborly tradition

Some longtime residents say they miss the sense of community that the old version of town meeting fostered.

Longtime residents remember when town meetings used to include more socializing. They were a chance to meet neighbors and catch up on local gossip, as well as settle important issues facing the town.

“I enjoyed it back then,” said Arlene Degree, who served as assistant town clerk and town clerk for 37 years before stepping down in 1999. “People were different. You don’t get to know people now as well as you used to. People are too busy.”

Degree remembers when Williston held its town meetings during the day and included a communal meal. Over the years, the meeting was moved to evenings. Then, as the meeting grew longer and longer. school and town meetings were held on different days. Finallly, the town moved to Australian balloting.

Gerecke said he, too, misses the colorful characters and social interaction that went with the old town meetings. “It would be nice to go back, but we can’t,” he said.

Spotty attendance

The number of citizens who attended Williston’s town meetings stayed steady throughout her decades as town clerk, Degree said. But she noted Williston’s population boomed during the period, meaning a smaller and smaller percentage of voters were attending.

Since Williston moved to Australian balloting, attendance has risen and fallen dramatically depending on whether there was a controversial item on the agenda.

In 2001, for example, just 201 residents attended town meeting. But the following year, when the agenda included a vote on the 1 percent local sales tax, more than 1,000 people crammed into the school, forcing town officials to seat people in the gymnasium and set up a closed-circuit television system so they could view the proceedings.

The past two years, with mostly routine items on the agenda, attendance has failed to break 200.

The conventional wisdom is that people are too busy these days to attend an hours-long town meeting. That sentiment bothers Coates.

“I’m sorry, I just can’t buy that,” he said. “I hear people say ‘I can’t get a babysitter.’ That’s bull—-. If you make the effort you can be there. People have put on a uniform and gone to fight for our right to vote.”

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