|VERMONT SECRETARY OF STATE - Jim Condos|
A Final Word On Town Meeting
by Paul Gillies
Town Meeting Day is the whole point of being a Vermonter. No other event so purely defines our independence or connects us to our history and tradition as the first Tuesday in March, the day the people rule.
Only at town meeting does the Town come fully to, facing the stage, and engaged in discussions of articles, the Town speaks. Sure, individual voters get up and talk, but as the meeting progresses you begin to hear one voice óthe voice of the majority ó and understand what makes the community work.
How could anyone stay away from Town Meeting? Is there any experience that can compete with it during the year? Itís the best theatre youíll see anywhere, and itís entirely unrehearsed. Itís the best opportunity you have to participate in making law, without having to run for a public office. For one day, you are a legislator, fully vested with the authority to speak and vote on the subjects that come before you.
We have our private lives, family lives, work lives, but this is town life, and it too has its obligations. One meeting a year is just enough. There the Town sits down and reasons together, not as a representative assembly, like the Legislature or the Congress, but as people ruling themselves, deciding who will serve in public office, how much to spend on highways and how much to pay in property taxes.
Some people you never see except at Town Meeting. "Howís the family?" you ask. "Sorry to hear about your father. Has the baby started walking yet?" To a Selectboard member, you ask, "Howís the Town? Sorry to hear about the grader. Has the new Zoning Administrator started yet?"
Town Meeting brings out the best of us. A young person stands up for the first time to talk about a proposal. A citizen of full years reminds the meeting how things used to be. People who never speak in public stand up and show us their compassion, wisdom, and good humor. Itís a continuing revelation.
Town Meeting is not all grace and light, of course. It has its sharp edges. Feelings are easily hurt. Tensions surface, between old and young, natives and newcomers, rural and urban sensibilities, left and right. Someone at every meeting is expected to criticize town officers. Someone else will want to cut the budget drastically. There will be pleas to be more civil. Some will leave Town Meeting shaking their heads.
The Town has been meeting on this day each year, hearing the reports, voting on the same articles, doing the business of the Town, for more than 200 years. Change has come incrementally to Town Meeting, and in many places it differs very little from the way it has been done for years. The Moderator, Selectboard, and Town Clerk play the same roles every year. The same citizens make the same complaints.
By the time Town Meeting ends, most people will have had enough of it for another year. Itís always that way. It always seems to go on longer than it should. Still and all, itís the heart of the Town. Itís the shareholdersí meeting. Itís the community, present and voting, in one room, article by article.
Perhaps more importantly than what is done is what is said. Listening closely, you can take the vital signs of the Town. What are people worried about? What makes them angry or frustrated? What do they wish the Town to do in the future? The best part of Town Meeting is when people open up and say whatís on their minds. Some people wait all year to say it. Others surprise themselves saying it once they stand up. All of it is sincere and important.
At Town Meeting, you can measure a Townís heart. You can gauge this in the way it respects its orneriest citizen, its tolerance for the oddball idea, its appreciation of a good joke, and the way it responds to a good argument. A whole Town Meeting can be inspired, just as it can be antagonized. Like a swarm of bees, itís an organism, reflecting the best and worst of its inhabitants.
Then there is a motion to adjourn, a second, and a sea of yeas, and itís over. Coats are put on, final goodbyes said. How quickly the room empties after Town Meeting. Other lives are calling. Itís all over but the minutes and the talk about how it went this year.
Treasure Town Meeting. Go and participate. This is the reason you live in Vermont.
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