A Vermont Town Meeting Primer

Today is Town Meeting Day in Vermont, that exercise in direct democracy when people go to their community schools and town halls and debate budgets, ballot items and the like.

The famous Norman Rockwell image of Vermont Town Meeting

The rest of the country views all this as charming. Isn’t it nice that people can decide, unfiltered by politicians and lobbyists and corporations, how their community is governed?

It is nice. The reality of Town Meeting is a little less charming than the stereotype, however. Selectboards, which are Vermont’s word for town councils, and school board members use Town Meeting to drone on about their budget proposals for hours so that people are sound asleep, or flee before the vote

“Line 1050 on page 28 is $500 for the school main office machine repair contract, up from $490 last year due to changes in accounting practices……”


So the budget is adopted because nobody is left in the building to fight over it.

Some people at Town Meeting just like the sound of their own voice. The start by asking a reasonable question: “Can you explain why health insurance costs for town employees are up 23 percent in this proposal?” the talker might ask.

He gets an answer, then holds up the rest of the meeting asking the same question 1,478 times, because he doesn’t like the answer he got. Geez. if you don’t like the budget proposal just vote against the damn thing instead of wasting everybody’s time!

Then, of course, the usual small town feuds play out. Somebody might not like the fact the town constable gave them a speeding ticket last summer, so they’ll make a motion to cut the constable’s stipend. An hour long argument then ensues over whether the town constable is a knight in shining armor or a complete jerk.

The constable’s opponents will say it’s not personal, they are just being fiscally conservative. Yeah, right. So the motion to cut the constable’s stipend wins after two long hours of discussion and as a result, everybody’s property tax bill next year will drop by maybe 10 cents.

As tedious as Vermont’s Town Meeting Day can be, it is a relief compared to the way the nation is run these days.

Town Meeting in Vermont is always a  can-do moment, despite the hiccups. At Town Meeting,  there’s usually an we’re all in this together kind of vibe, and people seem confident they can solve whatever problem their community is facing.

By contrast, the United States as a whole seems to have lost a bit of that can-do mojo. We have a lot of problems facing the country.  But we’ve had huge problems in the past, too.

My perception is, in the past, all of us, from the janitor at the school to the President of the United States, would double down and make sacrifices to get the job done. It was always an imperfect job, littered with a few mistakes and crimes, but we got it done.

I worry too many national leaders are fixated on the word “can’t.” I seem to always hear in the national political discussion that we can’t afford it, we can’t advance, we can’t solve the problem, I’m not going to make any sacrifices, you have to sacrifice, not me, I’ve got mine you can’t have yours,  we just have to give up.

True, national problems are more complex than the question of by how much to raise  property taxes in, say, Monkton, Vermont. Still Congress, and all those Washington types should come to Vermont, and sit through our long Town Meetings that are indeed boring at times.

Maybe our national leaders, while in Vermont, can learn how to hash through the issues, instead of stamping their feet like a toddler having a tantrum and saying they’ll never, ever, ever compromise.

Because in Vermont, if you don’t compromise, Town Meeting will go on and on and on forever and ever. And nobody wants that.


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2 Responses to “A Vermont Town Meeting Primer”

  1. gary rith Says:

    I have heard that your frog has a few opinons to share……

  2. Connie G Says:

    If you are not a senior or work for the State you probably have to work. I applaud the communities that do it on Sat so more voices get a say. Quaint but not equal voice for all.

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