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Clark: Town Meeting Exercise

Mark Bushnell
Middlesex Town Moderator Susan Clark and the town's selectboard engage with voters at 2018 town meeting.

Like our physical bodies, our body politic needs regular exercise to stay healthy. So put on your workout gear for Town Meeting. More than 60 percent of Vermonters live in small towns, and about two-thirds of our towns’ budgets are deliberated, amended, and voted on from the floor of town meetings. We’ll also elect officers, discuss local issues, and if we’re lucky, have some pie.

Credit Susan Clark
Pie is often a feature of a great Town Meeting meal.

Don’t be fooled by imitations. These aren’t the “town hall meetings” held in other regions, which are just places to sound off. New England town meetings aren’t simply offering advice. On issues of finance and governance, every town meeting voter is a legislator – determining spending, making amendments, and taking direct, binding action in government.

As with any exercise, it’s important to stay in shape. Before you try to run ten miles you'll have to stretch and train or you’ll strain something. Likewise with the body politic – we need active, regular workouts. Town meeting can’t be the only time communities get together during the year to hear each other’s opinions. Whether it’s a town visioning forum, or a town forest hike, communities need to convene regularly to stretch their civic muscle.

As many worry that our national democracy is seizing up, there’s even more reason to keep our local systems fit and limber.

Town meeting isn’t meant to be a spectator sport. And like any athletic event, it’ll be more fun if you know some of the rules; but you don’t have to be a parliamentary expert. At town meeting, democracy isn’t just for the pros. In fact, at one meeting I attended, a man began his remarks with “well, I’m not a lawyer,” - and received a spontaneous round of applause.

Studies show that empowered deliberative processes often increase trust, volunteerism, tolerance, and open-mindedness. Town meeting helps us remember the rules of fair play – and keeps our civic heart pumping.

Susan Clark is a facilitator, educator, and the co-author of "Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home." She is also Town Moderator of Middlesex, Vermont.