Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address”
Town Meeting has often been called the purest form of democratic government. We find it hard to find fault with that statement. But Town Meeting only works if voters participate. Government, of the people, by the people, and for the people only exists if the people want it to.
In Vermont, on Town Meeting day, that means breaking from the normal routine and attending a meeting. It’s not good enough to follow someone’s tweets or livestream, or sign an online petition. Real government requires participation, and that requires showing up to speak up or vote.
Tuesday, March 6, is Town Meeting day in Vermont. It’s the annual day when Vermonters get together with their neighbors to decide the direction of their local government for the coming year.
We’re hopeful that voters will make a strong showing this year. There’s nothing worse than a small turnout at Town Meeting. We understand, life often gets in the way. Work, kids, whatever the reason. It is hard to give up a good part of a day or evening to sit in an auditorium or town hall with a group of people.
In some ways, Town Meeting is like Christmas. No, attendees won’t get gifts, unless a town report counts. But like a treasured holiday, Town Meeting is a day to put aside one’s routine and do something different.
Like a holiday, Town Meeting is a time to catch up with friends and family or spend a few hours getting to know other folks in the town. Usually there’s a lunch or a dinner served, often by a local school or church group, and neighbors get to sit down and break bread with one another. It’s also a day to spend time talking about the issues the town faces and to try to find common ground on some of them. Sometimes those issues are big and important, sometimes they’re small and trivial, but they all matter.
For many local towns, this year may be the last meeting with town and school meetings held in the same room, one after another. In large part that is due to Act 46 mergers. Voters in Halifax and Readsboro, Whitingham and Wilmington, and Dover and Wardsboro have all approved Act 46 school district mergers. That is not insignificant, and will change Town Meeting in many of those towns. Some towns, like Wardsboro, already held their school and town meeting on separate days. But for other towns, school meetings will certainly be different in the future. At least, the locations will be different. The meetings, maybe not so much, other than there will be people from more than one town attending. The issues will still be familiar, even if the location and the crowd is different.
Speaking of the new school districts, there is no doubt there will be many questions about the new school districts and what it means for the future of local schools. We hope that’s the case, and we can also say there may not be a lot of concrete answers. The mergers are still works in progress, and it will take a few years to sort things out. But asking questions is good. That’s one of the time-honored traditions of Town Meeting. People need to go to their Town Meeting and ask questions and expect answers.
Government, especially local government, runs best when there is transparency about how things are done and how things are paid for. That’s the great thing about Town Meeting. Sometimes the answers are there in the report, which can be chock full of useful information. Sometimes officials have to explain things. But asking questions and getting answers is, in many ways, the core of our representative democracy.
And there is no better place to see that in action that at a Town Meeting in Vermont. Lincoln may not have had Vermont in mind when he wrote those words above, but no doubt he would be proud of how participatory government lives on.