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Douglas: Vermont's Annual Ritual

When I served in state government, inevitably we’d answer the phone on the 1st Wednesday in March and hear from perplexed callers from out-of-state: “Why didn’t you answer my call yesterday? Did you have problems with your phone system?” “No,” we’d reply, “it was a state holiday.” “Huh? What holiday?” “Why, Town Meeting Day, of course.”Vermont’s annual ritual of pure democracy is an enigma to folks from other places, but it has defined our state since its earliest days. Unlike most Americans, who only elect local officials, Vermonters are legislators-for-a-day with the privilege and responsibility of making decisions for themselves.

In the beginning, there were no elected officials, just meetings of the town’s settlers when collective judgments were required. Later it became cumbersome to hold a meeting to decide every matter, so the townspeople ‘selected men’ to transact business in between. Today there’s an annual meeting, usually in March, and special meetings when necessary.

The institution has evolved over time, moving from the 2nd Tuesday to the 1st, scheduled often the evening before and, in some towns, the preceding Saturday. A few communities hold their meetings at other times. Increasingly voters are electing officers and resolving public questions by Australian ballot, the process of day-long voting. Some Vermonters lament that trend, as it reduces the robust debate at a traditional meeting. On the other hand, more votes are cast and those who can’t make the meeting due to absence or illness can participate by absentee ballot.

There are some who wonder if Town Meeting is still relevant – or if it’s outlived its usefulness in an era when so many Vermonters work far from home, have other commitments or just don’t want to take the time. Others question whether voters feel that their participation still makes a difference – and whether local government has become too sophisticated for meaningful governance by a meeting.

There’s no answer to these questions that’s wrong or right. UVM Professor Emeritus Frank Bryan has concluded that there’s an optimal size to a town meeting: if the town is too large, it’s impractical for a significant percentage of the registered electorate to assemble. I often wonder in horror what would happen if all 5000 Middlebury voters actually showed up!

Maybe towns will delegate more responsibility to their officials. Perhaps the representative town meeting used by Brattleboro and some towns in other New England states makes sense. But I hope we continue to hold town meetings. They connect us to our neighbors and empower us. I think it’ll be fine if state workers have to continue to explain it to out-of-state callers.

Jim Douglas, a former governor of Vermont, is an executive in residence at Middlebury College.
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