Williston seeks European inspiration for Town Meeting3/5/09

March 5, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Now that Williston’s 2009 Town Meeting has wrapped up, a group of citizens is looking far outside the region for ideas to build a better meeting format. To be exact, they’re looking to Switzerland.

A Vermont town and a European country might not seem to have a lot in common, but Vermont author Susan Clark said both are similar in recognizing the importance of Town Meetings. The difference, Clark argues, is that Switzerland’s town meeting format allows for broader public representation.

This Thursday, March 5, Clark will present “Democracy in the Mountains: The Vermont/Switzerland Connection” at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library. The talk will detail Switzerland’s town meeting model and how it might apply to Williston and Vermont. The event starts at 7 p.m.

The event is sponsored by Williston Into the Next Generation, better known as WING. WING began last April during a two-day community meeting where residents could weigh in on the future of Williston. One of the goals that emerged from discussion was to create a more representative town meeting format.

Ben Rose, a member of WING’s town meeting committee, heard about Clark’s experiences in Europe and believed her research could apply to Williston.

“It really is about learning something new,” Rose said. “My hope is people come and it generates some discussion.”

Rose also said the timing works, since Williston’s Town Meeting should be fresh on residents’ minds.

“I thought that would make it be a serendipitous event,” Rose said.

Clark, the town moderator for Middlesex, has been a longtime advocate of Vermont’s town meetings and has researched how to get more people involved in them. She’s the co-author, with University of Vermont professor Frank Bryan, of “All Those In Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community.” She is also the sister of Delia Clark, last year’s WING facilitator.

Clark has said on numerous occasions that town meetings are better for democracies.

“You get to chew on the issues (in a town meeting). It’s not the rubber stamping of issues,” Clark said, noting that she prefers discussion and debate to the secret votes of Australian ballots.

Last year, Clark traveled to Europe to study how foreign towns vote at the local level, and found Switzerland to have an inclusive format much like the town meetings of New England. In particular, the Swiss format resembles representative town meetings used in Brattleboro and 40 towns in Massachusetts.

At a representative town meeting, one person represents each neighborhood or district during discussions and votes. Proponents feel the format ensures that each section of a community has an equal say, whereas votes at a more traditional town meeting could be skewed if a single neighborhood produces a large turnout. Brattleboro’s model inspired the creation of WING’s representative town meeting committee.

Clark said the Swiss use a similar format, known as the Town Parliament. Representatives from neighborhoods meet and make important local decisions on school and municipal budgets, and meet several times a year for local issues, Clark said.

According to Clark, all municipalities in the small, mountainous country share the same town meeting format — from the tiniest valley hamlet to the largest cities of Zurich and Geneva. Secret ballot votes still occur, albeit infrequently.

“They have a really strong commitment to decentralized power,” Clark said. “They make really big decisions on the local level.”

Clark said Williston would be a great place to enact a representative town meeting. She cited the size of the population and the strong civic mindedness of Williston residents. But the decision on whether a change is feasible and how to go about implementing it would be left up to residents.

“I really think it would be a great move,” Clark said. “There is some real community spirit there.”

“Democracy in the Mountains: The Vermont/Switzerland Connection” will take place at 7 p.m. on March 5 at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library.