Town meeting can have future, speaker says

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Williston is a prime candidate for a new form of town meeting, according to a Vermont commentator on the issue.

Radio commentator, educator, and book co-author Susan Clark told a group gathered at Dorothy Alling Library on Monday afternoon that Williston may want to consider representative town meeting – a form Brattleboro has implemented – in lieu of secret balloting, also known as Australian ballot.

“A lot of towns in Vermont that have gotten larger… have said the only alternative is Australian ballot,” Clark said during her program, “Rediscovering the Secrets of town meeting.” “And that’s where the mistake is, because there are other alternatives.”

In representative town meeting, residents are elected to a body of town legislators who represent the concerns neighbors have raised about proposed budgets. In that process, at town meeting representatives don’t just ask questions, but can actually amend budgets higher or lower according to what they learn.

“In town meetings, it’s direct democracy. …Everyone who comes to town meeting is a legislator,” Clark said. “What happens when towns move to Australian ballot is it’s still direct democracy, but it’s no longer direct deliberative democracy.”

In 2000, Williston residents voted to move budgetary decisions from town meeting to secret balloting. The night before Town Meeting Day – this year March 5 – residents are invited to the Williston Central School auditorium to learn the background and details of both the town and school budgets. The next day, from 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. voters cast their ballots at the polls at Williston Central School. Since 2001, Williston voters have not had the ability to alter the budget amount at town meeting.

Long-time Williston resident Ruth Painter said Monday she’s worried about the future of Williston town meeting because interest has dropped since the move to secret balloting.

Prior to 2001, 5 percent to 9 percent of registered Williston voters attended town meeting, according to town clerk office records. After the switch to Australian ballot, 1 to 3 percent of registered voters have attended. The one anomaly was in 2002 when 18 percent of registered voters attended town meeting; adoption of a local 1 percent sales tax was under discussion.

“With Australian ballot we all get a chance to make a decision,” Painter said, “but those who don’t come to town meeting don’t hear the discussion.”

Painter acknowledged that before 2001, “because the population grew so fast … hundreds of people were making these financial decisions for thousands. The hundreds of people that came to town meeting were not representative.”

Moving toward a representative town meeting could address that problem, Clark said.

Clark, who co-authored with University of Vermont professor Frank Bryan the book “All Those In Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community,” offered a number of suggestions for increasing civic engagement year round. “Living room meetings,” where neighbors talk about candidates or budget proposals over coffee, can be invaluable, she said. Writing letters to the community newspaper and suggesting new components to the town Web site – such as blogs or community listservs – also are good steps.

Program attendees had other suggestions. Painter suggested a potluck supper might draw more people back to town meeting. Resident Fran Nugent suggested that a van pick up seniors at senior housing complexes like hers to attend meetings throughout the year since they might not otherwise be able to attend. Jean Thomas said Channel 17 shows a range of videotaped meetings for that reason; but Jean Hopkins pointed out that Channel 17 only is accessible to those who pay for cable service. Hopkins said carpooling to meetings could improve civic engagement in Williston.

Clark emphasized that town meeting is unique to New England in the U.S. The concept was never exported to other parts of the country, she said, in part because of geography and in part because some of the founding fathers did not trust “the people” enough to use that kind of power responsibly.

Thomas Jefferson would have loved to see town meeting spread, Clark said, as would have Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville who wrote in his book “Democracy in America” the following, which Clark quoted: “Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within people’s reach, they teach men how to use and to enjoy it.”