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March 06, 2006

Town Meeting Day

One of the reasons Mary and I moved back to Vermont is because we missed town meeting.  It always happens the first Tuesday in March so tomorrow’s the first one since we’ve reregistered as Vermonters.

Vermont cities like Burlington (pop. 40,000) and Montpelier, the capital, (pop. 8,000) are too big for town meeting.  But we live in Stowe with only approximately 4,700 other people.  We have town meeting here; but only about 400 people go.  Not sure this’ll be the same as the town meetings we used to attend in Worcester, Vermont (pop. 900) more than twenty-five years ago.  Seemed like everybody went then.  Maybe we’ll be disappointed.

Back in Worcester Mary was the first ever selectperson.  Up until then we’d had only selectMEN.  She was also one of the first volunteer fireperson; she’s a rabblerouser but a fine volunteer.  I got elected justice of the peace because I interrupted the town Republican caucus to tell a visiting legislator that his wife was looking for him because their dog had just eaten the neighbor’s goat.  My party affiliation was a little shaky but that was close enough and they were short of candidates.

I was also town moderator for the last two years we lived there.  That’s the best job in the world although it’s unpaid. You only work one day a year, Town Meeting Day, except in the rare case of a special meeting.  There is a strong possibility that I was elected moderator to stop me from talking from the floor.  The rules are that the moderator has no opinion unless he puts down his gavel and another moderator is temporarily installed.  Never did that.

We found out that I would be nominated for and most likely elected moderator on the eve of town meeting day (even in a small town, there are powers-that-be that have much influence on such things).  Mary insisted that I read Robert’s Rules of Order.  Good thing.  Robert’s Rules are essential for a large meeting to work.

Most important is that there has to be a motion BEFORE there’s discussion.  Then all discussion must be germane to the motion (in the opinion of the moderator subject to points of order) until it is voted up or down or tabled.  If there is a motion to amend the motion which is on the floor, then discussion has to focus further on the topic of the amendment until it is voted up or down.  Think how many meetings you’ve been in that would have been improved if people were sure what topic they were talking about.  As a CEO running meetings I informally followed the principles of these rules.  Saved a lot of time.

The principle of town meeting is that the assembly, the people in the meeting, are the legislature of the town.  They vote on the budget, capital and expense.  They can change the budget. They can start or stop projects.  They certainly do debate every new bucket loader and police car.  They also elect the selectpeople.  The select board is the executive of the town; it administers the budget that the town meeting votes.  Other stuff comes up at town meeting, too.  There are resolutions meant to influence both state and federal governments – anti-Vietnam war when we were in Worcester, anti-Iraq war now – countered by resolutions of support for soldiers.  That wasn’t the interesting part because it didn’t change anything.

Used to be that the school budget was also voted at town meeting so, essentially, the property tax rate was set here.  But Vermont has a new law since we left – Act 68 – which includes a formula so complex that we’ll need to run Moore’s law for another decade or so to get machines powerful enough to make any sense of it.  Essentially it’s a spread-the-wealth law so much of what’s collected for property tax in property-rich Stowe is actually dependant on a rate set by the state – although the amount the state takes is affected by what the town elects to spend on its own schools.

We will vote on the school budget tomorrow but by Australian ballot rather than as part of the meeting.  Typically more than a thousand people vote at some time during the day while, as I said above, only 400 or so attend town meeting.  Low town meeting attendance may be a consequence of losing budget control to the state.  Or not, don’t know yet.

There’s a raging debate over whether the town budget should also go to Australian ballot rather than be voted on openly in town meeting.  The arguments are that town meeting is as democratic as you can get vs. it would be more democratic if the 1000 people who cast ballots voted on the budget rather than just the 400 who attend meeting.  But, if none of the budget is voted from the floor or amendable on the floor, will there be any purpose at all for town meeting?

There are some not so hidden agendas as well.  People are less likely to vote a budget down while their neighbors, teachers, policemen, volunteer firemen, etc. can see how they vote.  It’s easier to be cheap in the privacy of a voting booth.

This debate – whether to go to Australian ballot for the town budget or not – is on the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting.  How will Mary and I vote?  We’re not sure; we want to listen to the debate.

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