We all remember the lead-up to our first time. Asking friends how their first time went, choosing our outfit for that day, researching online to find the answers to our most pressing questions, looking up the address multiple times so we know where to go, planning what we’re going to say or do… That’s right, living in Vermont probably means navigating your first Town Meeting day!
When I thought about living in Vermont (and let’s be real—for a while after I got here), I had no idea what Town Meeting was. My coworkers kept mentioning “Town Meeting Season” and people at Selectboard Meetings introduced themselves as Town Meeting Representatives from different districts. I heard people planned lunch together for that day. In my town it’s on a weekend, but “Town Meeting Day” is really a Tuesday in most places. Did people take the day off from work to attend, or is it a Holiday?
I’ll start with the basics. Town Meeting is a form of direct democracy where members of a community (sometimes representatives, see Brattleboro Representative Town Meeting) come together to legislate policy and make budgetary decisions for their local government. Town Meeting Day in Vermont is March 2nd of each year. The community members meet in one room to discuss the articles on the agenda and vote on the budget, depending on when the meeting ends, everyone gets together and has lunch or dinner and celebrates.
Town Meetings take place in historic meeting halls with beadboard paneling and a gallery where the middle schoolers come to listen. They take place in elementary school gymnasiums, or high school auditoriums, schools where many of the residents themselves were educated. Town Meetings often have a bake sale, or tables set up where the local library sells raffle tickets. Town Meetings can feel like a room full of elders, with the occasional young adult bravely speaking, or it can be teeming with squirming kids and feel like a family reunion. In many ways, the feeling of a Town Meeting provides a tiny sampling of a community’s flavor.
Having a voice in my town’s governance
Everyone is encouraged to attend Town Meeting. A Town Report is circulated ahead of time with budget and related information on town-funded programs and projects. This is the space where the community makes decisions about their town budget. And as we know, a budget is a reflection of a town’s values.
This is what encouraged me to be part of Town Meeting this year. I put my name forward to be a Town Meeting Rep. I made sure I’d read the Town Report (177 pages!), then found a comfortable chair, a nice table top near the coffee maker and sat down to participate in a two-day-long Town Meeting!
I live in Brattleboro, which presents Town Meeting Day with a twist. Unlike in most towns, where every registered voter can attend and vote on the articles of Town Meeting. In Brattleboro—the largest town in the region—there are representatives from each District (1, 2, & 3) who are elected to be voting members at the Representative Town Meeting. Usually, people who want to be elected need to collect 10 petitions from registered voters in their district. This year, with COVID-19, that requirement was waived.
What are all these rules? I thought living in Vermont was supposed to be simple.
Town Meeting is when you really wish you had paid attention in Civics class or done a stint in student government so you’d understand Robert’s Rules of Order. The proceedings are presided over by a Town Meeting Moderator who has to keep things running according to the rules, with the help of a “parliamentarian” and town staff. The Moderator has to do this for hours, and this year they had to do it over Zoom!
Here are some interesting things I learned about Representative Town Meeting:
- A quorum is the minimum number of members that must be present to make the proceedings of that meeting valid. For us this number was 75. As the meeting wore on into the 2nd day, dropping below that number meant the meeting had to end.
- Every person who would like to talk must be called on by the moderator and their comment must be about the article in question. If the comment is not “germane” (appropriate or relevant to the article) it will be disregarded by the other members.
- Town Meeting members vote on “ending debate” to stop discussion on an article or amendment to an article. Two thirds of the voting members must vote to end the debate for it to pass. I personally think this is great because it really makes sure that a small group of people is not silencing another group.
- At the end of the meeting there is room for “Other business” which means anyone can bring up anything they would like to talk about during that time and it does not have to be warned and it is not “binding.”
This may seem like a lot of detail, but it turns out that in Vermont it’s pretty normal for people to understand these things because lots of people participate directly in government! I think that when people think about living in Vermont and what makes it so special, they may not understand that what’s at the root of the “vibe” are these practices of direct and representative democracy where everyone can play their part.
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