Last year I attended the reunion of the Class of 1970 at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD. (That was the class I actually graduated with even though I am technically 1969.) Our seminar reading was Democracy in America by de Tocqueville. A lively discussion ensued one topic being whether the de Tocqueville vision of what we in the 1960s called participatory democracy still survives. I argued that I thought it did survive at least in New England and particularly in Vermont. For example, Brattleboro where I live, has citizen committees for everything from planning to finance to trees. And, yes, while there are sometimes problems in finding sufficient people to serve, I believe committees eventually find volunteers. Some committees are appointed by the elected Selectboard, while others are appointed at Town Meeting.
Every town in Vermont has town meeting on the first Tuesday of March. Most towns have an open meeting with all town residents. Budgets are approved and important issues are discussed and voted on. These are de Tocqueville’s farmers conducting business. Here is the link to a nice explanation done for middle school students. Brattleboro is a little different. On the first Tuesday, which is a holiday, we vote for people who will represent us at town meeting as well as for other local offices like Select Board, School Board, Lister, and Constable. All the elected representatives meet several weeks later at Brattleboro’s Town meeting.
I decided to run for Town Meeting Representative, got 14 people (you need 10) to sign my nominating petition and got elected with a respectable number of votes. Town Meeting this year was divided into two meetings. The first was on a single question of authorizing the Selectboard to take money allocated for renovations at the current police station and, instead, purchase a building in a new location and move the police station. I voted “no” because I was opposed to moving an essential government service out of downtown, and we lost big. There is some move to do a town wide referendum on the question, but I don’t know if that will succeed. My feeling is that my side lost and we just need to get on with it for the sake of the police officers.
The second meeting was yesterday and was a more traditional town meeting. We arrived at 8:30 and adjourned about 4:30 with an hour for lunch. (Unlike smaller towns, we have no pot luck, but a high school club sold us stuff for breakfast and lunch to raise money for a trip to Costa Rico.) There were 30 articles on the agenda beginning with appointment of the Town Clerk (no controversy there) and accepting the audit reports for the Town and for the Town Schools. We elected people to the Capital Grant Review, Library, and Finance Committees (I got on that one.) And then a motion was made to raise the compensation of the Selectboard members. They currently get $3,000 a year with the Chair getting $5,000. Interesting questions were asked during the discussion including whether increasing the compensation would attract people to run who could not afford to volunteer and whether paying the Selectboard more would change the character of the government from volunteer to professional. The motion that finally passed was to have the Finance Committee study the matter. I can see what I will be doing this year! Interestingly we did decide to raise the Town School Board member pay from $2,000 to $3,000 and the chair from $3,000 to $5,000 to make them the same as the Selectboard.
We voted for modest sums to support a variety of local human service non profits and for tax relief for others. I don’t think any of those votes were unanimous. And we approved after much discussion, the town budget and school budgets for the next year. I am more familiar with general government budgets than with school ones, but the town budget is very lean.
Finally we passed two non-binding resolutions: First, to eliminate fees for activities at the Senior Center and second, to designate the second Monday in October, Indigenous People’s Day.
All in all a very interesting day. I heard a lot of concern about poverty in Brattleboro. I think the number of children who qualify for free lunch – 62% – shocked a lot of people. (According to the 2010 Census, the median income for a household in the town was $31,997, and the median income for a family was $44,267.) I can see this becoming more of a topic for discussion at future town meetings.
We heard a plea for civility at the start and other than some mutterings and calls for points of order when one representative in particular spoke, that request was answered. I think that if he attended any of the town meetings I’ve read about in the local paper for have friends who attended, de Tocqueville would have no trouble recognizing his democracy in America.
Photograph: Chris Mayes, Brattleboro Reformer.