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Why Does Town Meeting Day Matter?

You may be amazed to learn that my answer to that question is... Emerging.

Democracy in action - demonstrated here by knitting (think Dickens' Tale of Two Cities), reporting for the local paper via laptop, or following the proceedings in the printed Town Report.

Ours is an emerging democracy, not a mature one, and certainly not a perfect, complete or pure one by any stretch of the imagination. Some say it is more of a republic than a democracy, and some say we're on a slippery slope toward fascism and away from democracy altogether. Yikes.

Democracy is an ideal, not a foregone conclusion, and not something we had once and then lost. There are no "good old days" to return to since we haven't arrived there yet. There are, however, many things to learn from in our country's brief history, many things worth preserving or even reverting to, and many traditions from this continent that pre-date the United States as well as many from other cultures that we would do well to study.

The Town Meeting I just returned from a little while ago is a living relic of evolving democracy in modern community, crafted a dozen or so generations ago by white settlers and their descendants. Susan Clark and Frank Bryan explain this phenomenon in All Those In Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community:

"What was unique about these New England democracies was not simply face-to-face decision making by organized groups of people. After all, that was already being done, for example (in religion) by members of a Congregational church or (in business) by a contractual entity like the Mayflower Company. But allowing all the voters of a government (in New England, the town) to come together and make binding decisions for themselves was dramatically new."

Well, the novelty may have worn off, but it's still so near and dear to the hearts of many Vermonters because it's still unique, and it still works, and perhaps especially because it's under siege.

Our Town Center building before the Historical Society wing was added.

It's unique to New England because in other parts of the country a "Town Hall Meeting" is just a performance that may allow a little audience participation but has no immediate effect and does not empower all voting members to enact changes to legislation. Real Town Meeting does - any motion or amendment that passes with a "yay" or "nay" voice vote instantly becomes law, whether it was proposed by a dairy farmer fresh from milking or a sugar-maker stopping in on a break from boiling maple sap or an Ivy-League educated economist or Vermont Law School-educated attorney. In my town the farmer or sugarmaker could also be the economist or attorney. Literally. We make the laws together, on the spot. There's a "warning" or agenda of issues that's distributed before the meeting so people know what to expect, and there's active discussion on those issues there at the meeting - that's why it's so important to show up.

It still works because so many people have cared to pass it on and to learn how to participate meaningfully. I'm sure we're the Roberts Rules of Order capitol of the world here in Vermont, for what it's worth. They're printed out in magic marker on poster board at the front of the hall, the basic ones, and they are each explained by our Moderator of 20 years, a local timber framer and Dartmouth grad. Any voter can ask a question, make a suggestion, propose an amendment or new motion, and we still use the voice vote "yay" or "nay" for most issues. Not kidding. I love it.

Yet it's under siege from political and economic forces that pressure people out of taking their legally state-granted day off from work to attend Town Meeting. For some child care is an issue, since we don't provide that for little ones. School is still in session so kids and teachers aren't present, though that was discussed this year as a desirable change. Some people feel disenfranchised, not realizing how important a vote or a question or an interaction with a neighbor can be. But at least there is also ongoing discussion around how we can include more people and encourage more to participate. We do not give up.

We need to fight for Town Meeting just like every one of you needs to fight for whatever possible organizing civil collective forces can or do exist in your neck of the woods. If you don't have Town Meeting you can still build a neighborhood network where people help each other out, work together, create a block vote and leverage some influence in your local government and especially in each other's lives. This is what we're seeing at the federal and state levels now with the beautiful upsurge in activism against injustice and for better, safer, more prosperous and caring communities.

Our democracy is still emerging. The founding mothers and fathers did not hatch it fully formed from their powdered heads. They gave us an ideal to develop, nurture, evolve, experiment with, question, challenge and cherish. It's up to us what emerges from our stewardship, every generation anew. This one is pivotal, the consequences of our caring or apathy will be catastrophic or miraculous. So have tea with your neighbor, and when something happens in your town, show up. It's worth it. And bring soup - more people will come if there's food!

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