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By Brian Shupe
In last week's Valley Reporter both Rob Williams and Deri Meier raised interesting and valid points regarding the proposal to vote on Waitsfield's town and school budgets by Australian ballot, rather than voting on those items from the floor at Town Meeting.
This is an important issue, the outcome of which will help define what kind of community we are and the level of control and oversight that voters will exercise over our town government. My preference is that we retain Town Meeting, which has served Waitsfield well for 225+/- years, and can be improved to serve us better in the future.
Town Meeting not only allows voters to approve or disapprove of the taxing and spending decisions of elected leaders, it allows those voters to take control of those decisions. In past years, voters have questioned the priorities of our select board and overruled those priorities, on the spot, by changing the budget.
However, Town Meeting is not the most convenient form of democracy, and encouraging greater participation is an important goal. Across the nation disenfranchising certain classes of voters has become a political weapon, and Waitsfield should be working toward greater participation and involvement in local decision-making.
I fear, however, that choosing to vote our budgets by Australian ballot may slightly increase the number of votes cast but will diminish the role of the voters in the act of governing – and concentrate that authority in our 10 elected school and select board members. Further, communities that have adopted Australian ballot have not experienced noteworthy changes in town or school spending.
The nearby town of Middlesex faced a similar question several years ago. They took the question seriously and decided to explore the root causes of limited participation at Town Meeting and examine all options for addressing them with thoughtfulness and ingenuity. Ultimately, they decided to maintain the democratic tradition of Town Meeting while seeking to improve participation. Waitsfield should follow a similar process. There are many strategies for improving participation at Town Meeting. For example, the town could consider:
Holding Town Meeting during evening hours or on a weekend;
Providing on-site child care to make it easier for parents with young kids to attend;
Providing transportation for folks that may have a difficult time getting there on their own, especially during inclement weather;
Scheduling the town and school budget votes more closely together, at a more predictable time, so that voters could target their attendance;
Creating opportunities for voters who are homebound, or wintering in warmer climes, to participate electronically (the most recent version of Robert's Rules of Order includes a new section on electronic participation, and for the past five years Middlesex has made it possible for people to participate from distant locations using GoToMeeting, a free skype-like service).
These are just a few options – putting our heads together will surely yield other creative strategies for not only maintaining but enhancing this widely envied form of pure democracy.
In the book All Those in Favor, written by Middlesex town moderator Susan Clark and UVM political science professor Frank Bryan, the authors included an excerpt from a speech made by a Peacham voter, when that town rejected replacing Town Meeting with Australian ballot, that explains the inherent difference between the two forms of decision-making:
"There's a legitimate reason why town meeting requires us to be present to vote, and it's this: town meeting is not a ballot box or a voting booth, and it's not a state or federal election; town meeting is a body of citizen lawmakers, a local legislature and every one of us is a legislator. Like any other legislature, its members must be present to vote, and like any other legislature it can, should and must meet even when some of its members are absent."
Shupe lives in Waitsfield (and moderates Waitsfield's Town Meeting)