Every Town Meeting Day, the Vermont media run a few heart-warming stories that reinforce the Rockwellian ideal of what it means to participate in local, direct democracy — such as this chestnut from WCAX about "Newark's Tasty Town Meeting Day Tradition."
(Spoiler alert: it involves "casseroles and salads galore.")
And then there's Steven Pappas' town meeting takedown. In a piece headlined "Has Town Meeting Run Its Course?" (behind the paywall), the editor of the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus calls for ending the cherished tradition and replacing it with voting booths.
The piece begins:
I’m going to make a motion. I know it will eventually get a second, and plenty of discussion.
In the end, I expect it will fail.
My motion is this: “I move that all town and school budgets, as well as election of local officers, across Vermont be decided by Australian ballot, hereby ending the ‘traditional town meeting’ as we know it.”
For real. Once and for all. It’s a relic, and its worn parts are really starting to show.
Damn. At first, I thought Pappas was joking — that this was some ironic set-up or journalistic bait-and-switch that, in the end, would call for fixing town meeting's broken parts but not scrapping the whole enterprise.
I mean, really. The editor of state capital's daily newspaper crapping on, of all things, town meeting? That's got to be satire, right?
Nope. As the piece goes along, it becomes crystal clear the dude's dead serious.
Idealists like to believe they are making the best and right decisions for their town over the course of a few hours each March. But they don’t always do that. In fact, they often undermine the hard work of town and school officials who have a much better understanding of the facts. The “old town meeting” format is too easily hijacked by generalists and angry taxpayers (many with no children in the schools).
In truth, town meeting allows us to see exactly who’s not informed, and who’s most ill-prepared.
Blowhards and bullies love the day. They can drag out our town meetings with the most narcissistic gestures. They enjoy listening to themselves talk rather than moving discussions forward. All they really provide is that stark reminder that the chairs or bleachers are very uncomfortable after about 20 minutes.
Not only that, but that food praised in WCAX's heart-warmer as a "tasty tradition?" It sucks. "Yes, sure, there is potluck food, bad coffee, pies for charity, tables of literature on various projects and causes, and reminders printed out on bright pink slips of paper," Pappas writes. "But there has to be a 21st century version of this relic that still provides us with that local identity, that sense of community, local control and pride in citizenship."
OK, so the coffee isn't town meeting's strong suit. And maybe Pappas has a point. It's too easy for clueless voters to dominate town meeting with soapbox rants even when they haven't done their homework.
But how would replacing town meeting with Australian ballot voting solve that problem? Sure, it might be easier for voters to weigh in on town issues — they could swing by the polling place on their way to work, rather than taking several hours out of their days to sit on those uncomfortable bleachers. That certainly might drive up voter turnout and participation — which always makes for better democracy.
But would voters be any better informed? Voting booth towns like Burlington have clueless voters too. They can cast a ballot without having attended a single public meeting, or read a single government report. Sure, they don't waste as much time listening to long monologues, but it doesn't mean they're any more informed about the issues.
At least at town meetings, citizens can hear a presentation on town budgets before voting. That's more than you can say for Burlington, where people can fill in a circle to raise the school budget whether or not they've read the city's 204-page annual financial report that spells out where all the money is going. (Hint: a big chunk is paying interest on the city's $79 million in general obligation debt.)
I'm not saying town meeting is perfect, and I'm certainly not going to prescribe any fixes for it. Far be it from this flatlander to start telling Vermonters what to do. But I'm sure as hell not gonna be the one to call for its end. Maybe we should let the voters decide — in a town meeting, of course.