Town mulls method to reanimate Town Meeting (2/25/10)

Could representative meeting boost pallid participation?

Feb. 25, 2010

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Williston’s Town Meeting next week will likely follow a familiar script: A few dozen residents sit in a mostly empty school auditorium, listening to budget presentations and asking questions.


    File photo
Selectboard members sit through Town Meeting last year.

There will be little debate and no decisions on anything substantial. Residents decided years ago to move voting on budgets and other spending measures to Australian balloting, held the day after Town Meeting. But participation is still dismal: Only 15 percent of registered voters cast ballots last March.

Could a move to a representative town meeting cure what ails local democracy? Williston officials are exploring the issue.

Though there are variations, in general representative town meetings function through the use of elected representatives, sometimes selected within districts or neighborhoods.

Each representative stands in for a predetermined number of citizens — typically 100 or more — and votes on budgets and other matters of civic importance. The idea is to maintain participation and allow citizens to deliberate budgets and other matters before voting yes or no, something that is lost with Australian balloting.

Williston Town Clerk Deb Beckett said she supports the idea, which facilitates a vibrant meeting filled with citizens who care about and understand the issues.

Because important civic business in Williston is decided by Australian ballot, she said, there is little incentive for residents to attend Town Meeting.

“They are really not voting on anything, so it’s really hard to justify spending a night at the meeting,” Beckett said.

Her point is echoed in “All Those In Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community,” a book by University of Vermont political science professor Frank Bryan and educator Susan Clark.

The book says that though Australian ballots simplify voting, they make town meetings irrelevant.

“In a way, the Australian ballot is worse than deadly, because it doesn’t kill town meeting quickly,” the authors write. “And the execution is dishonest. We are told 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.”

Traditional town meetings lose effectiveness in municipalities with more than 5,000 residents, the book acknowledges. In bigger towns such as Williston, moving to representative meetings can reanimate the personal give-and-take at the heart of town meetings.

Brattleboro, population roughly 12,000, is the only Vermont town that currently uses representative town meeting, although many municipalities in Massachusetts and other New England states have it.

“I think it works pretty well,” said Annette Cappy, Brattleboro’s town clerk. “You’ll find some who say it doesn’t. But the majority say it works pretty well.”

Last year’s meeting had a total of 129 voting representatives elected from multiple districts, Cappy said.

Each representative serves a three-year term. Terms are staggered, so roughly a third of representatives face re-election each year. All residents are welcome to attend town meetings, but only representatives vote.

Issues are decided by voice vote, Cappy said. The meeting, held annually in late March, a couple of weeks after town officers are elected, starts in the morning and usually lasts all day.

If a decision made at the meeting displeases residents, they have a right to petition for a revote, Cappy said.

A bill now being considered by the Vermont Legislature could encourage other towns to follow Brattleboro’s example.

The state Senate passed a bill earlier this month that would permit towns with 5,000 or more residents to hold representative town meetings. The bill is now awaiting action by the House Government Operations Committee.

The issue of improving Williston’s Town Meeting was raised in 2008 during a two-day community meeting. The group formed out of the session, called Williston Into the Next Generation, or WING, sponsored a talk by Clark last March about representative town meetings as they are conducted in Switzerland.

The Selectboard on Monday briefly talked about representative town meeting at the suggestion of board member Ted Kenney. Board members asked for more information and may resume the discussion next month.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said he hopes to track down a video recording of Brattleboro’s Town Meeting for the Selectboard to watch. If the board remains interested in representative town meeting, then McGuire said a study group could be formed to further consider the idea.

A change in the town charter, approved by both residents and the Vermont Legislature, would be required before Williston could shift to representative town meeting.