Swiss democracy tempts Williston3/12/09

Residents consider possibilities of representative town meeting

March 12, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Just a few days after Williston held its annual Town Meeting, a group of residents considered changing the format while learning about Switzerland’s town meeting model.


    Courtesy photo by Mark Bushnell
Thousands of residents gather in a Switzerland town square for a statewide town meeting. Many standard town meetings in Switzerland resemble Williston’s format of face-to-face discussion of important issues.  

About 20 people listened to a presentation Thursday night at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library from Susan Clark, a Vermont town meeting expert who studied Switzerland’s meetings last summer.

“Direct, deliberative democracy is very rare,” Clark said. “But the Swiss have it.”

The presentation, called “Democracy in the Mountains,” came three nights after Williston’s Town Meeting. About 75 residents came out March 2, with turnout likely hampered by snowy weather and a lack of controversial items on the ballot.

During her one-hour, multimedia presentation Thursday, Clark explained how Switzerland’s town meetings are similar to Vermont’s, yet differ by what is voted on in the local level. She also explained how the Swiss give deep importance to the democratic process, with one of their national symbols being a statue of a farmer standing up and voting with his right hand.

Clark co-authored “All Those In Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community” with University of Vermont professor Frank Bryan and is also Middlesex’s town moderator. Last year, she spent three months in Switzerland studying town meetings in a country that has three national languages — German, French and Italian.

“Listening to a room full of people in a gym argue in German about weight limits on bridges might not be the next travel craze,” Clark joked with the audience.

Williston Into the Next Generation, better known as WING, sponsored the presentation. During WING’s first meeting last year, a group was created to research the possibility of holding representative town meetings.

A representative town meeting typically has representatives from different town neighborhoods or districts meeting to decide important issues. Several New England towns have this system, including Brattleboro. Switzerland also has a version of a representative town meeting, known as the town parliament, which can be found in some of the larger municipalities.

Clark mentioned during the presentation she believed Williston would be a good town to try a representative town meeting format, an assessment with which some of the audience agreed.

Resident Charlie Magill, whose son-in-law is a neighborhood representative for town meetings in Arlington, Mass., said it’s time for Williston to adopt its own representative meeting. Magill said he would like to see an elected 150-person group represent the town.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Magill said.

Town Manager Rick McGuire, who also attended the meeting, was unsure if Williston could successfully change its town meeting format. He said “centralization” lessens the importance of town meetings, with many issues being decided at the federal level instead of the local level.

Clark said Switzerland has a practice of decentralizing its federal government, meaning many important decisions are made at the local level.

Local towns make decisions on work permits, income taxes and even citizenship, to note a few examples. These hot button issues tend to drive more people to town meetings in Switzerland than they do in Vermont. Town parliaments in particular draw large crowds, she added.

“The town parliament captures a broad spectrum of the community, between neighborhoods and the government,” Clark said.

Resident Ben Rose, who organized the WING event last Thursday and supports the idea of a representative town meeting, understands McGuire’s point. Rose said it’s an issue the town and WING members will continue to discuss.

“There aren’t enough issues that people need to engage in at the local level,” Rose said. “Still, some (issues) do come along.”