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The Valley Reporter
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The heart and soul of Town Meeting

By Frank Bryan

This time of year always finds Vermonters longing for spring. It seems so close. We can almost touch it, feel it – smell it. But springtime in Vermont calls forth something else, something particular to us and other places in New England – especially in the North – something others all over the planet dream for but we in fact live. It is democracy; not its substitute, representative democracy, but the real democracy of face-to-face decision making. In Vermont, democracy's manifestation is Town Meeting.

It is not pure. It is not always pretty. But it bestows upon those who practice it the ultimate achievement – a profound compliment, a civil society that governs itself face to face.

We live the dream.

And yet some Vermonters – including some in Waitsfield – want to give it up.

They want to abandon the open, face-to-face deliberative process, which is the heart and soul of Town Meeting, with the cold, impersonal confines of the polling booth, where decisions are made on paper and limited to a few yes-no decisions.

The "deliberative" part of Town Meeting is held at another time and is often called an informational meeting. In today's busy world the convenience and theoretical inclusiveness of voting by Australian ballot sounds attractive. And I agree that, no matter what format a town follows, it's important to participate. But therein lies the difficulty – over time (usually a very short time) these informational meetings dry up.

Awhile ago I went to such an informational meeting in a small town in northern Vermont. In my study of over 1,500 Town Meetings, this town had – in the past – one of the most successful records of attendance, deliberation and decision of the over 1,500 Town Meetings I studied. Moreover, one year it conducted the single best meeting of the 1,500.

Then the town voted to put the warning on the ballot and held an informational meeting on a weekday night so more could attend. I went to observe the meeting. It was the worst Town Meeting I have ever attended – and I have personally attended over 70.

The attendance was dismal.

The moderator begged for participation. But, compared to real Town Meetings, there was almost none.

There is something tragic and eerie about the silence that follows when the moderator goes from article to article without a murmur from the floor – and when the words "all those in favor – all those opposed" are never heard.

The only meaningful participation from the people came at the end of the meeting, when a citizen arose to suggest that the town return to the traditional Town Meeting, because, he said, with a quick sweep of his hand across the room, "this is not democracy."

And the citizens who were there? They enthusiastically agreed and applauded their support.

You see, they were the ones who had always attended Town Meeting in the past. They were lamenting their loss.

One meeting does not a conclusion make. So I will put it this way. My book demonstrated that the single most important contributor to a decline of Town Meeting attendance is the Australian ballot. (And these variables included weather conditions!)

Let me put it this way. Face-to-face interaction in the public square without a binding vote at the end is like sex without completion. It's unsatisfying. And, worse, it discourages participation.

Bryan is a professor emeritus of political science at University of Vermont.

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