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Luskin: Town Meeting Day

Since last year’s Town Meeting, I’ve been called to the polls twice for special elementary school votes, once for a special article about a Town Charter, and once each for the November elections, the union high school budget, and the elementary school budget. That’s a total of seven votes – an indication, I think, of how vibrant self-governance is in my town.
But, few of these important decisions were made at our Annual Town Meeting.

Yet Town Meeting is possibly the most personal form of government around. Most of the voters in the room know each other, by sight if not by reputation, and what we decide affects us all, from how much sand and gravel to buy to which social service agencies to support
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Unlike Federal taxes, which are whisked out of our paychecks before we even see the money, we determine town taxes at Town Meeting, where we also vote about how and when to collect them, and what to do about those whose taxes fall in arrears.

Town Meeting is a practice in civility. Thanks to Roberts Rules of Order, everyone gets the same, fair chance to speak; it’s a safe arena for free speech. And when the meeting is over, we’re still neighbors in a small town where we help one another out of snow banks, regardless of differing political ideals.

Unfortunately, what we are asked to decide at Town Meeting has diminished, which helps explain why attendance at Town Meeting across Vermont is in decline.

In my town, we no longer vote on the school portion of our taxes at Town Meeting. Worse, what we can decide about education at the annual school meeting is limited to a small portion of the complex process that determines the educational budget’s bottom line. The majority of our school budgets are determined by state and federal legislation made higher up the governmental food chain and beyond our direct control.

I don’t need research to tell me that people are willing to show up, debate and vote on important issues. I’ve seen it first hand in my town, where this year we turned out for votes in June, October, November, January, February and March.

I’d like to see all this voting brought back to the first Tuesday in March, and remake Town Meeting as a day of democracy in towns across the state, where we carry out all the meaningful business of self-governance, of which Vermonters are justly proud.