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By Rob Williams
Here's a solution that offers "maximum participation with maximum conversation."
As a Waitsfield citizen, parent and school board member for more than a decade now, I am writing in support of preserving our annual Vermont Town Meeting Day as the best venue for decision-making about our town's annual spending decisions. Winter petitions circulated throughout the Mad River Valley urging residents to support a new absentee ballot measure from the Town Meeting floor this March 4.
If passed through a voice vote on March 4, this proposed measure would allow residents unable to attend Town Meeting – local "sun bird" retirees wintering in warmer climes, for example – the opportunity to vote on the annual budget without actually attending Town Meeting. I am not unsympathetic to arguments made by supporters of the absentee ballot, and I'd like to thank fellow Valley-ite Deri Meier, in particular, for thoughtfully bringing them to our collective attention.
The argument in favor of absentee balloting boils down to this – absentee balloting allows more residents to vote. My question is, will absentee voters truly understand what's at stake when they cast their ballot from afar? In other words, should quantity of participation (more voters) trump quantity of participation (an informed understanding by voters of the annual budgeting process and what is at stake)?
After extended conversation with many Valley residents on all sides of this issue, I am convinced that absentee balloting will effectively kill our cherished annual Town Meeting tradition here in Vermont – the one day each year when we gather together as citizens, neighbors and taxpaying residents to debate, discuss and deliberate on the issues facing our town. As school boards, we rely on our annual Town Meeting to publicly explain our budgetary decision-making to the town voters in a community forum that offers time for questions, comments, reflection and discussion. Absentee balloting would suck the life from this vital annual conversation. Instead of absentee balloting, I'd like to propose another solution.
Some context. This year is a particularly difficult budget year for public education in the state of Vermont. Since September 2013, our Waitsfield School Board has worked tirelessly with our Washington West Supervisory Union (WWSU) colleagues to craft a school budget that offers the best possible education for the highest number of our students for the fewest possible dollars – in the face of a byzantine and complicated statewide funding mechanism, flattening property values (meaning our property taxes must go up in the current funding model) and declining financial support for public education from the Vermont Legislature and Governor Shumlin via the General Fund. (Several years ago, we property taxpayers funded 61 percent of the school budget. Today, we are paying closer to 70 percent.) We are urging our state's elected officials to take action to re-invent the public school funding mechanism, even as we have worked to streamline costs at both the town and supervisory union level these past several years. At the national level, citizen cynicism with the federal government seems to have reached new heights, and my fear is that our local residents will simply vote on our local school budget without taking the time to educate themselves about the realities of our current fiscal situation at both the local and state level (see above). In short, the need for public discussion about how we spend our resources has never been more pressing – and absentee balloting, while making voting more convenient for some, erodes the importance of this public conversation at a time when we need it the most.
Here's a solution that may offer the best of both worlds – maximum participation with maximum conversation. I propose that we move our annual Town Meeting Day to a Sunday afternoon in May – this would make it more possible for working residents, "sun bird" retirees, the elderly and others who are challenged by the current "first Tuesday in March" schedule to attend. Let's begin the meeting at noon and go to 5 p.m. with a 30-minute break from 2:30 to 3 p.m. for snacks and socializing. At 5 p.m., let's host a community chicken pot pie supper and a bonfire at Waitsfield United Church. Let's offer child care for our children during our meeting – they can play out on our school playground, supervised by our high school students trained in babysitting and first aid through our local schools. In this way, we can continue to foster the vitality of the Vermont Town Meeting tradition. As fiscal pressures increase at the state and national level, our need for local community discussion and debate will increase, as well – let's not take away the vitality of our Town Meeting democracy at a moment when we need it the most. Instead, let's do what Vermonters do best – adapt Town Meeting Day by making it more inclusive and vibrant for this new century. See you at Town Meeting!
Rob Williams lives in Waitsfield and serves on the Waitsfield School Board.