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Slayton: Town Meeting 2017

The snow is melting, redwings and waterfowl are showing up here and there, and some sugar makers have already boiled sap. An early spring seems to be underway, even as our concerns rise for the health, perhaps the survival of American democracy. It’s town meeting time once again.

And it may be especially important to remember at this time that not all important decisions are made in Washington — or even in Montpelier.

The Vermont Town Meeting is said to be democracy in its purest form. We don’t elect officials to represent us on town issues: we decide those matters ourselves. It’s inefficient and can sometimes seem tedious, but there’s a stumbling nobility about town meeting — especially those hands-on meetings where people gather to do the public’s business with their neighbors.

Traditional town meetings complete with citizen participation, open debate and often a hot lunch at mid-day are still held in about 150 Vermont towns. Budgets will be set, town officials elected, and in every town that conducts business in the time-honored way, people will have their say on issues great and small.

“Think globally, act locally” the saying goes. And increasingly, that’s what’s happening at Vermont’s town meetings. Broader concerns come up regularly these days, such as closing Vermont Yankee, a ban on genetically engineered food, and a freeze on nuclear weapons. This year several towns will consider demanding that any Presidential candidate registered in Vermont disclose his personal finances. It’s probably obvious where that particular resolution is aimed.

Though these items are purely advisory in nature, they often make news, sometimes national news, and they give Vermonters frustrated with national politics a chance to speak out.

Some see these resolutions as a weakening of Town Meeting, essentially a distraction from the more time-honored business of local elections and budgeting. But I think they’re a healthy expression of Vermont opinions. They invigorate the local meetings and help to continue their relevance into the future, even as many of the traditional functions of such meetings are gradually taken over by the state or the feds.

We don’t live in a vacuum; we live in a nation struggling to find its way into the future. And Town Meeting can help us decide what kind of town — and what kind of nation — we want to live that future in.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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