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Keep our town meeting traditions strong

Warnings for town meetings this March have been promulgated. School meetings are already happening in some towns. While we celebrate our practice of true democracy, we must also beware that the scope and relevance of our democratic power is under attack from more than one front.

Vermont town meetings have a storied history of votes and debates that have put us right in the middle of any number of national and international issues, from slavery to nuclear weapons to labeling GMOs.

But in 2007, a Vermont Supreme Court decision gave selectboards the power to reject petitioned articles if they were deemed as not germane to town business. Since then, boards in various towns have taken advantage of this ruling when asked to include a petitioned article on the town meeting warning if they didn’t like the content of the proposed article. The petitioning citizens are told that their concerns, whether about illegal wars, or the honest labeling of our food, or anything that wouldn’t show up as a line item in the budget are not germane to town business.

Apparently the business of community and living together on the planet are a little too radical to be subjects for town meeting discussion.

But these efforts to thwart public discussion often backfire, as happened in Middlebury in 2007. Not only did citizens there raise the forbidden articles for discussion, they also took time to chastise the selectboard for their actions
and to direct them to have more respect for the rights of those they represent.

In other towns debate has been stifled more successfully, and their public discourse is the poorer for it.

This year, the Grafton selectboard has taken the “not germane” argument to such an extreme as to be an insult to the petitioners as well as a rejection. Grafton residents in more than ample numbers duly signed a petition asking “Shall the town prohibit large-scale industrial wind installations in Grafton?” This discussion is timely because Grafton, along with Windham, is being eyed by the multinational corporation Iberdola as a potential site for an industrial wind project. Windham has already addressed the issue and has taken a firm stance against this type of development in their town plan. Without any consensus or enacted policy, Grafton is much more vulnerable to manipulation by corporate lawyers as they work to maximize their clients’ profits.

So why did the board reject the article (not even allowing it as a non-binding article)? Checking with the town attorney and with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, they were told that this is a decision that only the Public Service Board can make; Grafton has no jurisdiction in the matter. Certainly these lawyers, if not the board members, also know that the Governor, who is as gung-ho about wind power as you can get, has also made it clear that he does not want to force wind power on any town that doesn’t want it. They should also know that town plans are something that the PSB is charged with taking into careful consideration when reviewing a development application.

So while the town of Grafton could not pass an enforceable ordinance banning the construction of a PSB approved tower, it most certainly could debate the article and, if it wished, vote that it be adopted into the town plan. Ultimately, the value of the town’s judgment is to inform the PSB about the town’s wishes.

Even if a town meeting vote was passed, but had to wait for a time before fitting into the town plan process, it would have value representing this year’s town meeting. For the selectboard to disregard the value of a community discussion on such an important topic does a great disservice to the town. How better to destroy the town meeting tradition than to prevent the most pressing issues of the day from being discussed? How better to foster misunderstanding between neighbors than by preventing them from having a civil discussion about an important topic about which they may disagree? How arrogant is it to tell your fellow citizens that their judgments about what is important in their town are inferior to yours?

In the Vermont Secretary of State’s publication, “A Handbook for Vermont Moderators,” open and full debate is encouraged as fully expressing the value of town meeting:

“A moderator who rules an article out of order on the grounds that the article as written is not ‘business to be transacted’ oversteps the traditional reserve and impartiality of a moderator and runs the risk, not only of being overruled, but of being accused of stifling free debate on an article. Political speeches will be given the respect they deserve by the voters, but the voters should be left free to make their own mistakes if they choose.”

Should the selectboard have any less of a duty to encourage civic engagement and free debate?

(It’s notable that while the Moderators’ Handbook explains how the citizens at town meeting can overrule any decision by the moderator simply by calling for a vote of those present, the “Citizen’s Guide to Vermont Town Meeting neglects to tell us that we have that power. Both of these publications are free and available from the Secretary of State’s office and well worth having.)

At some of the upcoming school meetings, towns are being asked to radically change the way we run our schools. Residents in Newfane, Brookline, Townshend and Jamaica are being urged to join with Leland and Gray High School to form one district with one school board making the decisions for all of the schools.

In many small towns, as general stores and post offices fade away, the school is one of the last community centers where neighbors meet and come to know each other and their town’s future: Their children. Even as small schools conform to state and national standards, they retain an identity that reflects the town.

When townspeople have the responsibility of overseeing and supporting their school, they have an opportunity to work together on projects and initiatives. They are empowered to make decisions about their school rather than having a passive role of being told what will happen. This work builds the understanding, knowledge and strength about our schools and about each other that make community much more than some number of houses with people in them.

If we allow our established rights to govern ourselves to be eroded at the local level, if we allow more and more of the important decisions that will have tremendous bearing on our future and our children’s future to be decided by corporations, lawyers and myopic public servants, if we allow the lure of monetized efficiencies to seduce us to give local control away to centralized authority, then we will have squandered the very prize of democracy that we claim to cherish.

Please remember, we have the power, we are the power. If your moderator arbitrarily limits speakers to a short time limit, or only one or two chances to speak, move to overrule the moderator and let democracy have its say. If the assembled citizens decide that a topic is germane, they should exercise their right to discuss it. We need not stand idly by as our democratic traditions are slowly eroded and weakened. We can keep our foundations strong. We can be brick and mortar as well as mason. Seasons greetings.