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As Attendance Declines, Communities Search For Ways To Boost Town Meeting

Angela Evancie
Scott Lowe speaks during Richmond's Town Meeting on Tuesday. Despite some towns' efforts to boost participation by holding meetings in the evening or on Saturday, Town Meeting Day attendance in Vermont continues to decline.

Another annual Town Meeting Day is upon us, but despite efforts to boost participation by holding meetings in the evening or on Saturday, attendance continues to decline.

Ten years ago Susan Clark and Frank Bryan wrote a book that took the pulse of town meeting and argued for its importance. 

The book, called All Those in Favor, reported town meeting attendance had fallen over the previous decades. Now, an updated edition says the decline continues.   

The most recent data show just 11 percent of registered voters attended their town meeting.  

Clark says much of the decline is due to waning participation in larger communities, but there are other factors that may be in play; like state control over issues that were once entirely decided on a town level.

To boost participation, she suggests larger communities consider a representative town meeting, similar to Brattleboro’s, or a hybrid approach that allows citizens to make changes to warned articles at a floor meeting, then vote on them by Australian ballot at a later date.

Clark says such a model preserves the most important aspect of town meeting: the ability to discuss and shape local budgets and policies.

"We've learned from town meeting data that when we move decisions away from people, the citizens will turn away." - Susan Clark, co-author of "All Those In Favor"

“We’ve learned from town meeting data that when we move decisions away from people, the citizens will turn away,” she says. “They’re too busy for informational meetings where they don’t have any power and they lose connection when the issues they’re asked to address are predetermined.”

Some smaller towns are also taking steps to improve attendance. 

Bethel has established a Town Meeting Committee which has made a number of recommendations.

This year the meeting has been moved from town hall to the more accessible school, child care is being provided and local groups are encouraged to set up exhibits at the meeting.

Victoria Webber, who serves on Bethel’s committee, says the town report has also been redesigned to make the budget and its impact on taxpayers more understandable.

“There’s a pie chart, there’s, ‘If your house is valued at $100,000, it will be this many more dollars,' there’s a table of contents at the beginning. The improvements to the town report have been a big thing,” says Webber.

Webber’s husband, Davis Dimock, who also serves on the Town Meeting Committee says boosting attendance is really a means to an end, which is engaging more people in what’s happening in their community.

“So they feel more comfortable in partaking,” he says. “Then they can lend a hand to help shape Bethel’s future.”

Another new feature at Bethel’s Town Meeting is free pie for those who show up.

Committee members hope this and the other small changes will add up to more participation in town affairs.

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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