The guiding principle is simple enough. Residents of a town gather to discuss and vote on items, or warnings, that have been proposed by elected officials or citizens at large. Many of these items involve spending money, which in turn affects how much residents will pay in taxes. While simple on the surface, the machinations that take place during a Town Meeting can be very complex. There are protocols to follow and rules of order, and on top of that many communities develop their own traditions on top of the legal requirements of the process.
Town Meeting day in New England has deep roots, with the tradition dating back to colonial times. Town Meeting is also one of the world’s most-studied forms of participatory democracy.
In many ways, Town Meeting is the glue that holds local communities together. Once a year, residents come together to talk about issues important to them. Town Meeting is both a continuation of a centuries-old tradition, and a way to find solutions to modern-day, real-time problems in a community.
Two centuries ago, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about New England’s participatory town government in his classic treatise “Democracy in America.”
“The American attaches himself to his little community for the same reason that the mountaineer clings to his hills, because the characteristic features of his country are there more distinctly marked; it has a more striking physiognomy.
“In America not only do municipal bodies exist, but they are kept alive and supported by town spirit. The township of New England possesses two advantages which strongly excite the interest of mankind: namely, independence and authority. Its sphere is limited, indeed; but within that sphere its action is unrestrained. This independence alone gives it a real importance, which its extent and population would not ensure.
“It is to be remembered, too, that the affections of men generally turn towards power. Patriotism is not durable in a conquered nation. The New Englander is attached to his township not so much because he was born in it, but because it is a free and strong community, of which he is a member, and which deserves the care spent in managing it.”
While the language of 1835 may seem dated, the underlying concepts still ring true. It is the “town spirit,” as de Tocqueville wrote, that gives our towns their sense of community, their strength, and their independence. He also grasped the concept of independence, which certainly still holds true. Vermonters have long been noted for their stoic acceptance of people and ideas, even if they sometimes don’t appear to welcome things with open arms. In the end, a “live and let live” attitude is often found even in the most remote areas of the state.
So what is it about Town Meeting that still makes it relevant today? Many things, no doubt, but perhaps the essence is the idea of participatory democracy, the feeling that anyone who is present in the meeting room is part of the community, a “member” as de Tocqueville said. After all, just about any registered voter can show up at a Town Meeting and speak their mind, and feel that they are contributing to the community.
There is little doubt that Town Meeting has evolved over the years. The simple inclusion of women on town government boards is something de Tocqueville could not have conceived of. The amount of money many municipalities spend on roads and schools is sometimes shocking, even when compared to the numbers of 30 years ago.
But at the core, Town Meeting remains very much the same as it did in earlier times. A day when residents in a community gather to discuss and vote on the direction their town will take during the coming months, to connect with friends and neighbors, and to feel that their opinions are worth something.