This week I went to my very first town meeting. It might not sound like much, but it turns out that town meetings play a very important role in Vermont, and it has been that way for more than 200 years.
The town of Orange has about 950-ish residents, and I believe somewhere between 75-100 showed up for the meeting. Just like a scene out of a movie, the town hall swelled with the laughter and voices of people exchanging hellos and catching up with each other. I’m sure I stood out a little bit, not knowing anyone, but I was happy to grab a seat and take it all in. The meeting started with the crack of a gavel, and the town-appointed moderator called everyone to order.
Unlike in Maryland, where the schools and the operating budget are maintained on a countywide level with relatively little democratic involvement by the community, in Vermont these matters remain within the firm grasp of each township.
In our case, the county we live in currently has a budget of about $830,000 dollars, most of which goes towards the Sheriff’s department and maintaining the courthouses. The town of Orange, on the other hand, approved a $2.8 million dollar school budget, and another $800,000 or so for town operations. And that’s just for a wee town of 950-something people!
There are different styles for Vermont town meetings, too. Some use traditional floor voting with the crowd voicing ayes or nays to each issue. Others use what’s known as an “Australian Ballot” which is where the voting is done through polls and you can either vote for or against an issue, but unlike the traditional voting, there’s no wiggle room for amending or changing the proposal you’re voting on. Some towns blend both voting systems. Except Brattleboro, which is the only town in Vermont that uses a representative system where only elected representatives (known as “Town Meeting Members” ) are allowed to vote at the town meeting.
At our meeting, every issue raised is subject to approval by the body attending (us) and also subject to amendment and extensive debate. I quickly learned who were my most outspoken and opinionated neighbors! If the ayes and nays were “too close” a paper ballot was called and the group would submit their vote on a little piece of paper that was collected and counted by the Town Clerk.
The meeting started around 6:30 pm and ended at 9:00 pm on the dot. A success, you could say, considering that in years past the contentious discussion on the school budget has pushed the meeting as late as midnight. And while some moments were tense, the meeting was largely productive and civil; a true testament to the democratic process.