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Is Town Meeting Outdated? (And Other Questions You Asked Bob)

A person puts a piece of paper in a ballot box with "Cornwall" written on it.
Angela Evancie
/
VPR File
Town Meeting in Cornwall, Vermont in 2014. Is Town Meeting outdated in 2020?

VPR's senior political reporter Bob Kinzel takes on your questions about location of Vermont's capital, the limited functions of our county governments and more.

Note: Our show is produced for the ear. We recommend listening if you can! But we also provide a transcript below.

In the latest episode of VPR’s people-powered journalism project — Brave Little State — we take your questions about Vermont’s various levels of government. They are:

"What's up with Town Meeting Day?""/"Has Town Meeting become outdated in its current form?"  — Lauren Welch, Waterville and Sam Lotto, Cambridge

"How many more people does Vermont have to add to its population in order to have a second congressman?" — Ellen, Middlebury

"Who will replace our aging congressional delegation, and how will federal funding to our brave little state fare under freshman lawmakers?" — Aaron Brown, New Haven

"Why don't Vermont counties have more functions?" — Grant Reynolds, Tinmouth

"Has there ever been a movement to make Burlington the capital of Vermont?" — Chris Pitt, Winooski

In our quest for answers, we have some help from VPR's senior political reporter Bob Kinzel, who has covered the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 (which is longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature!).

 

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The transcript

Disclaimer: Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers. They may contain errors, so please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print!

Angela Evancie: Well, shall we dive in? 

Bob Kinzel: Why not? 

Angela Evancie: OK. Well, Bob, this is your debut on Brave Little State. So welcome. 

Bob Kinzel: Oh, it's great to be here. 

Angela Evancie: I don't know — do you want to just introduce yourself? 

Bob Kinzel: I'm Bob Kinzel, senior political reporter at VPR. And the Friday host of Vermont Edition. 

Angela Evancie: Perfect. And one thing that you do for VPR — people might have heard it on Morning Edition if they listen — is a segment called “Ask Bob,” which is sort of similar to Brave Little State. But can you explain “Ask Bob”?

Bob Kinzel: Sure. We try to take a question that listeners have, kind of questions that people have about the process of government. How does the caucus system work? How do you override a veto in the Legislature? And then I do a little research on it and come back and try to answer the question.

Angela Evancie: So naturally, you are a perfect fit to come on to Brave Little State. We have gotten so many questions about Vermont politics and governance, political history. So you were the natural choice to come on the show and answer some questions today.

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Bob Kinzel: Well, I'm happy to give it a shot. 

Angela Evancie: Great. And we're calling this ... I don't know, we're probably gonna call it, like, an “Ask Bob” Special. 

Bob Kinzel: [LAUGHTER] OK, that sounds great. 

[MUSIC: BRAVE LITTLE STATE THEME SONG]

Angela Evancie: From Vermont Public Radio, this is Brave Little State. I'm Angela Evancie. Here on the show we answer your questions about Vermont, our region and its people. There is no question too big or too small, as long as we are satisfying your curiosity. Today, we take on a handful of your questions about Vermont government and politics. 

Various speakers: This is Sam Lotto, from Cambridge, Vermont. My name is Chris Pitt, I’m from Winooski. Lauren Welch, from Waterville, Vermont. Grant Reynolds, from Tinmouth, Vermont.

Angela Evancie: It’s “Ask Bob” on Brave Little State. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund. Welcome.

Brave Little State is launching a newsletter soon! Click to sign up.

Ye Olde Town Meeting

Angela Evancie: Bob, our first questions are about a long-standing tradition in Vermont.

Lauren Welch: Hi, this is Lauren Welch, from Waterville, Vermont. 

Sam Lotto: Greetings. This is Sam Lotto from Cambridge, Vermont. My question for Brave Little State is…

Lauren Welch: What's up with Town Meeting Day? 

Sam Lotto: What is the current health and the future of Town Meeting? 

Lauren Welch: How many towns in Vermont still have them? Why aren't they more widespread across the country? 

Sam Lotto: And just as important, has Town Meeting become outdated in its current form? 

Lauren Welch: Thanks.

Sam Lotto: Thanks so much for taking the question, and I look forward to hearing the broadcast before we get to those. 

Angela Evancie: Before we get to those, Bob, for people who aren't familiar, maybe listeners who just moved here, what exactly is Town Meeting? 

Bob Kinzel: Think of Town Meeting as the earliest form of government in the state of Vermont.

A black and white photo of people in rows of chairs with ballot boxes in the forground and a stage in the background.
Credit Vermont Historical Society, Courtesy
Town Meeting in Huntington in 1972. Town Meeting is long-standing tradition in Vermont, going back a couple centuries.

West Windsor Town Meeting: Those in favor of Matt signify by saying “Aye.”

[CHORUS of “AYE”]

Those opposed?

[A LONE “NAY,” LAUGHTER]

Who said that?

Bob: It's been held for the last 250 years on the first Tuesday in March. And many people view it as democracy in its purest form.

West Windsor, Vermont Moderator Matt Birmingham: Can I have a motion and a second to adjourn, your special meeting. So moved! Second? Second.

Bob Kinzel: And so in some communities they go to town hall. In other places they go to the school auditorium. There's a moderator who runs the meeting ...

Newbury Town Meeting: Can I please ask that you address remarks to the Moderator.

Bob Kinzel: And during the course of that meeting, they're going to vote on things like the school budget and the town budget and any other amendments that people want to bring up. 

Calais Moderator Gus Seelig: I would just like to ask if we might take a moment just to reflect on them and the other folks we’ve lost.

Bob Kinzel: It's also, I think, a time for voters to bring up grievances. 

Killington Town Meeting: This is a sham! I'm tired of this town. Tired of this town. 

Goodbye and don’t come back!

Bob Kinzel: It's a way to vent and for people in the community to let the select board know how they feel about a variety of issues. 

Killington Town Meeting: Everybody vote no! Everybody listen. 

Bob Kinzel: Another thing that happens at Town Meeting quite often, is that citizens and voters are asked to consider what we call “non-binding referendum” issues. 

[MUSIC: “ZULIA CONSPIRACY” BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]

Now, these have nothing to do with local town government. They usually are a national issue or an international issue. In the 1980s, there was a nuclear freeze referendum that came up in many Vermont towns, and there've been a host of other issues that come up. Gun control. Are we doing enough about climate change? Should the United States support a war in Iraq?

Black and white photo of people carrying a nuclear arms freeze banner in a crowd.
Credit Tony Talbot / Associated Press
Vermonters protest in New York City in June 1982. More than 200 Town Meetings called for a nuclear freeze that year.

Calais Town Meeting: The only ones benefiting by us criticizing the President of the United States, and not supporting our troops over there is the war criminals and insurgents and terrorists alone. And I'd like to see it voted down. Thank you.

[CLAPPING]

Bob Kinzel: It's certainly common to hear a lot of people talk about Town Meeting as the most pure form of democracy. It's direct democracy where folks have an opportunity to change the scale of issues in their communities. 

And there's one person in Vermont who has really studied this more than anybody else. And that's former UVM political science professor Frank Bryan. He published some of his most important findings in a book called Real Democracy. And here's one of his quotes that I think really sums up his dedication to the whole institution of Town Meeting. 

[MUSIC: “SILVER LANYARD” BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]

And it is: “While many seek the truth by scanning galaxies through powerful telescopes, my eyes have been glued to a microscope — looking down, not up, inward, not outward. America has often seemed transfixed by big. I am captivated by small.” 

Angela: Wow, that's a great quote. I feel like you would often also hear or see Frank Bryan talking about how unique this institution was. Like, there's really nothing else like it. Here at VPR, there's a documentary in our archives from 2007 called First Tuesday in March, and here's what Frank Bryan said then.

Frank Bryan: Look, most Vermonters or all Vermonters, if they want to participate in Town Meeting, can be a participant in the democratic process that 95% of Americans can only dream about. You can't do this in Pittsburgh and in Buffalo or San Francisco, even, you can't do it. You can't be a legislator and amend from the floor and change policy in real time. 

Bob Kinzel: There's one real interesting thing about Town Meeting that I discovered in doing some research for this. And that was, women didn't vote at Town Meeting really until 1920.

Angela Evancie: Oh, really?

People in a crowd looking down.
Credit Tony Talbot / Associated Press
Bethel Town Meeting in 2012. Women couldn't vote at Town Meeting until 1921.

Bob Kinzel: So for the 150 years that we have Town Meeting, women are not allowed to vote. Now, it changed in 1880, and that was the year it was decided, OK, women can vote on issues, but actually they can only vote on the school budget. And we're gonna let them vote on the school budget, because supposedly they know something about children. Imagine that. 

And at the same time, in order for a woman to vote, she had to own property in the town in her own name — not her husband's name, but it had to be in her name. And she had to pay property taxes in her name. So that eliminated about 96 or 97% of all women in the state of Vermont. So this doesn't change until the 19th federal amendment is ratified in 1920. And then the following year, the Town Meeting of 1921, that is when women have an opportunity to vote at Town Meeting for the very first time. 

Angela Evancie: That definitely casts it in a different light. I think a lot of people are really nostalgic about kind of Town Meeting as the original form of democracy. But it sounds like it was as exclusive as our American democracy used to be, as well.

Bob Kinzel: Women's participation in Town Meeting mirrors their ability to vote in the United States exactly. 

Angela Evancie: Well, let's get back to some of the modern-day characteristics of Town Meeting. The questions that we got today from Lauren and Sam were particularly about Town Meeting today. Right, so, yes, it is this long standing tradition, and institution in our state. But what is sort of the current health of Town Meeting in 2020? 

Susan Clark: And this is Brave Little State, right? 

Bob Kinzel: This is Brave Little State, and the way we start it is...

Bob Kinzel: I put on our Brave Little State questions directly to Susan Clark:

Bob Kinzel: … we answer questions that people have submitted. 

Susan Clark: Which I love.

Bob Kinzel: So I'm going to read you the exact question and then we'll just take it from there. 

Susan Clark: All right. 

Bob Kinzel: Sound good?

Susan Clark: Yeah, sounds good.

Bob Kinzel: Now, Susan is the longtime moderator in Middlesex. She's also the co-author of a book with Frank Bryan called All [Those] in Favor [Say Aye].

Bob Kinzel: The question we got was, “What is the current health and future of Town Meeting? Has Town Meeting become outdated?” What do you think? 

Susan Clark: OK, great question. Very important question. And I think that the answer is, well, you know, its health is not what it once was, especially in larger towns. But it has certainly got a lot of life left in our smaller communities. 

[MUSIC: “MOON BICYCLE THEME” BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS”]

Bob Kinzel: It works much better in smaller communities than it does in a larger communities. And I think Frank Bryan identified the size of about 2,500 people as the most that would work for Town Meeting.

Susan Clark: So those are lessons that we can continue to take from, even though Professor Bryan is retired and that data isn't being collected anymore. The most important thing I think to remember is that size matters. Small towns get much higher per-capita turnout than large towns. But every year, small towns are reporting 15 or 20% turnout.

A person and a dog in a crowd.
Credit Tony Talbot / Associated Press
John Heminway and Ruthie the dog at Strafford's Town Meeting in 2012. Smaller towns tend to have higher per-capita Town Meeting turnout.

Angela Evancie: How many towns in Vermont do still have Town Meeting or some form of Town Meeting? 

Bob Kinzel: That is a very complicated question, with a very complicated answer. But let me take a shot at this. 

[MUSIC:”MOON BICYLE THEME” BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]

About half of Vermont towns right now decide their school budget, their town budget, their election of local officials using the Australian ballot. And in that case, that's when people go to their local polling place, they cast a ballot either on a machine or in paper, and then they're done. They go back to work for the day or wherever they're going.So that's about half the towns in Vermont. 

So the other half have a combination. Some towns will use an Australian ballot for the school budget, but then use Town Meeting for the town budget and the election of officers. Some towns will do the exact opposite: They'll use the Australian ballot for the town budget, but they want to have a floor debate over the school budget. And about 25% of the towns in Vermont actually use Town Meeting and a floor debate for everything. 

Angela Evancie: So it's almost like a Venn diagram, where you have some towns that are like pure Town Meeting, others that have moved totally to a paper ballot and then some that do a combination. 

Bob Kinzel: Absolutely. 

Angela Evancie: Well, so, Bob, what about turnout levels and participation? I think this is kind of a preoccupation of some of our question-askers. Are we seeing flagging participation in Town Meeting over time? 

Bob Kinzel: I think what we're seeing is there's a direct correlation between the kinds of issues that are discussed at Town Meeting and what kind of turnout is there. For instance, if a community is discussing whether or not they're going to merge their school, under Act 46, there are gonna be a lot of people coming out. And so, what we've discovered — and Susan Clark can speak very well to this — is that, issues matter. 

Susan Clark: Whenever we've dug in to find out why a town spikes, you know, a 70% turnout, we almost always find something hot on the warning, whether it's wind towers or spending.

Bob Kinzel: And if you really don't have very much on the ballot, you're not going to get a very good turnout.

Susan Clark: So Town Meeting is there for us. It's there for these communities. It might wait through some sleepy years, but it's there for you when you need it. 

Bob Kinzel: Another person I heard talk about the relationship between turnout and issues in a community is Deb Markowitz, former secretary of state. 

Deb Markowitz: When you're talking about what's the health of Town Meeting, I would suggest that you should measure that by, “What are the interesting things that people are getting together to talk about?” So I would say, the more contested issues there are, the more petitioned articles there are, the healthier the Town Meeting is in that community. So if you’ve got a petitioned article on whether or not to make the community a safe place for undocumented workers, that may be very controversial and so a lot of people show up. And you’ll have a very dynamic Town Meeting.

Angela Evancie: I thought that was a really interesting observation, and it almost made me wonder, like, if you’re living in a community, and you feel like not enough people are coming out for your Town Meeting, should you just petition for an article on an issue that you know is going to be really controversial?

Bob Kinzel: Yeah, I don’t know. You know, I think that happens a little bit with these national issues. I was really interested to see Susan Clark and Deb Markowitz disagree on this. 

Angela Evancie: Oh, how so?

Bob Kinzel: Deb’s saying, “Hey, they're great. It brings people out. Anything that brings people out, I'm all for it.”

[MUSIC: “ZULIA CONSPIRACY” BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS”]

Deb Markowtiz: If the big goal is to enrich local democracy, the more you have issues on the ballot up for discussion at a Town Meeting that people care about and think are relevant to their lives, the better. 

People sit in rows in a room.
Credit Toby Talbot / Associated Press
Town Meeting in Elmore in 2010. Are national referendum issues good because they increase voter participation or bad because they lead to polarizing debate between neighbors?

Bob Kinzel: Susan said, “I'm not so sure it's a good idea.“ Here's why. 

Susan Clark: Those issues oftentimes are polarized, polarizing and require a different form of conversation. What they call for is a dialog, not a debate.

Bob Kinzel: When people vote on these national referendum issues, they're very polarizing debates. Somebody is right, somebody is wrong. And that's sort of the antithesis of Town Meeting, where we want people to discuss issues and then come together on a compromise. 

Angela Evancie: So you’ve got these really contentious national issues on the one hand, and on the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got downs debating, almost as passionately, about very very small spending measures for super-local needs, right?

Bob Kinzel: Right, right, right. It might be, “Do we really want to have a used fire truck? Do we want to buy a new one?” You have some very basic issues. “How much money do we want to spend on the highway budget? Do we want to fix all those potholes?” And so you have really an enormous range of issues being discussed at Town Meeting Day in different communities. But Susan Clark thinks there's a great benefit to it. 

Susan Clark: I think in a sense, it's actually a very hopeful sign that people want — are very, very passionate and bring a lot of energy to some of the lower dollar sign items — because they know something about it. They know something about the Humane Society, or they just had an experience with home health and hospice. They want to tell about what happened with their mom. And that's what brings these decisions to life, is when people bring their own experience. That's how that's how we make small-d democrats. So I think it's exciting when we have a heated discussion on a $500 item.

[MUSIC: BRAVE LITTLE STATE THEME SONG]

Angela Evancie: So we've talked about the past of Town Meeting, and the present. Another element of our listeners’ questions was about the future of Town Meeting. So, what is the future? Is this an institution that is becoming outdated? Bob, what did you sort of hear from people on this topic? 

Bob Kinzel: This is actually one of the questions I had for Deb Markowitz:

Deb Markowitz: Well, so, the big answer, of course, is, no. Town Meeting, I think, will never become outdated in Vermont. It really is part of our history, part of identity. It's one of the things that makes us special. 

On mobile? Click here to see the video below about Pittsford's Town Meeting Day in 1947, provided by the Vermont Historical Society and made by the U.S. Army.

Bob Kinzel: And that with everything that's going on in the country, in the world, here's some direct democracy where an individual can actually make a difference. 

[MUSIC: “GONDOLA BLUE” BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]

Deb Markowitz: I would say, though, there’s some caveats. You know, it requires physical presence. If you're a person who works, or who has kids at home and you don't have child care, or maybe you're just really shy, or you don't know English very well, it makes Town Meeting less accessible. And so, as Vermont becomes more diverse, as more Vermonters are working outside of the communities where they live, I think, you know, it's stressing Town Meeting.

Bob Kinzel: You know, there is a lot of discussion whether or not you would have more voter turnout if you had an Australian ballot system, as opposed to Town Meeting, where you have to go there and physically be there for hours at a time. I talked to Susan Clark about this — whether or not the Australian ballot would be a higher turnout system — and she said, it really isn't that simple. 

Susan Clark: At Town Meeting, what the data suggests is that people are simply making a choice of whether to go or not. 

Bob Kinzel: I was also wondering whether or not turnout and participation in Town Meeting would be higher if it was moved to a different time of day or a different day all together — or even perhaps if Town Meeting was a state holiday, so everybody would have an opportunity to go. 

Karen Horne: There doesn't seem to be much difference in participation when you move the meeting around.

Bob Kinzel: I put this question to Karen Horne. She's the legislative director over at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

Karen Horne: You know, thinking that you'll get more people on Saturday, or in the evening who can't come out during the day. You might get different people, but you're not actually getting a lot more people. 

Angela Evancie: Bob, earlier we mentioned this 2007 documentary that VPR made about Town Meeting. And in that piece, Frank Bryan said something that I think actually still holds in 2020. He acknowledged that, you know, Town Meeting isn't perfect, but…

Frank Bryan: Well, it's in pretty good shape, especially if you compare it with other forms of democracy in America. 

[MUSIC: “GONDOLA BLUE” BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]

In fact, it's a paragon of political virtue compared to the way most people participate in politics. In fact, worldwide, it is. But on the other hand, like other institutions of political participation in the country, it's suffering.

Vermont needs way more people for a second congressman

Angela Evancie: All right, let's move on to a few questions we got about our congressional delegation. This is a little bit of a tie-in with our last episode, where we took on listener questions about why Vermont has never elected a woman to serve in Congress. We're the only state left, in fact. If you missed that episode, you should definitely go back and listen. But for today:

Elodie Reed: How many more people does Vermont have to add to its population in order to have a second congressman? 

Angela Evancie: That question came to us from Ellen in Middlebury. We weren't able to get a recording of Ellen's question, so that was our digital producer, Elodie Reed, voicing it. So, Bob, right now we have one congressman, Congressman Peter Welch. What would it take for us to be able to add a second Rep.? 

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Bob Kinzel: The short answer is, a lot of people. 

Here's why, here's how the whole thing is determined: There are 435 seats in the U.S. House, which, unlike the U.S. Senate, is apportioned by population. So what you do is you take the population of the entire country, and the last Census was done in 2010. There were roughly 310 million people in the United States in 2010. So you divide that number by the number of House seats, which is 435. And you get, each district should be around 700,000 people. Now, if a state has fewer than that, like Vermont  – we have a population of about 600,000 in 2010 – you still get a seat. So, everybody gets a seat. But if you go over that, you have to go way over it to get a second seat. We'd have to get up to about a 1,400,000 people. So that's a long way from where we are now. 

Angela Evancie: Wow. It is very hard to imagine Vermont all of a sudden getting to, did you say 1.4 million people? 

Bob Kinzel: That's what it would take. And that's not going to happen. Right now, we're losing population.

Angela Evancie: Right. 

Bob Kinzel: That's it.

Fresh federal lawmakers = less funding?

Angela Evancie:  Well, that's a nice, straightforward answer to that question. Let's move on to our next question, which came to us from Aaron Brown. 

Aaron Brown: Hi, this is Aaron Brown in New Haven. I’m wondering, who will replace our aging congressional delegation, and how will federal funding to our brave little state fare under freshman lawmakers? 

Angela Evancie: Well, obviously, it's difficult to answer part one of Aaron's question, which is, who is going to replace our “aging delegation.” But Congressman Peter Welch, Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. Bernie Sanders are all in their 70s. And of course Sanders is running for president — and he’s doing pretty well in the primary. So if he were to win the election, what would happen to his seat? 

Three members of Vermont's delegation with their arms around each other.
Credit Tony Talbot / Associated Press
From left to right, Vermont's delegation Rep. Peter Welch, Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. Bernie Sanders on the night Welch and Sanders were elected to their respective seats on Nov. 7, 2006.

Bob Kinzel: This is fascinating. And I thought I knew the answer to this question, but I was wrong. So here's the right answer:  It's up to every individual state to determine how to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. There's no one way that it has to be done. Now in 36 states, the governor appoints a successor, and then a special election has to be held within the next two years. In 14 states, including Vermont, the governor appoints a successor, but a special election has to be held within six months of that appointment. Now, if it turns out that there's a statewide election scheduled within that six-month period, then the special election is held then. 

So, let's say Bernie Sanders is elected president in November of this year. And he resigns his Senate seat, who knows — sometime in late November, December? He really has an option about when he wants to do it. Then, Governor Scott, because he'd still be governor — regardless of what happens in the gubernatorial election, Phil Scott will still be governor until early January — he'll get to appoint Sanders’ successor. And then the six-month clock will start ticking, and a special election will have to be held, you know, by June of 2021. 

And one sort of interesting side note here is that sometimes governors appoint themselves. It's not that rare that it happens. I don't think Phil Scott would appoint himself to the U.S. Senate, because I don't think he has aspirations in the Senate, but it's always an option that could take place. 

Now, there is a scenario where Governor Scott would not make the interim appointment. Let’s say he’s not reelected in November. In this case, President-elect Sanders could wait to resign his seat until after the new governor is sworn into office on January 6. It would be unusual, but it could happen.

Angela Evancie: Wow. Well, we will have to wait and see on that one. That would be a very interesting course of events. As far as the other members of our delegation go. You know, you've got Patrick Leahy and Peter Welch. If any of them — Sanders or those two guys — if they ever move on, is there within sort of the Vermont political apparatus, is there like a succession plan where we have a small group of people deciding, “Oh, you know, we're gonna run this person next and support this person next”? Or is it more sort of just gonna be an open race when one of those seats does open up? 

Bob Kinzel: If we were talking about the older days of Vermont politics, 50, 60, 70 years ago, there was definitely a line of succession. And what happened in those days was, someone would run for the Legislature. Someone would get elected lieutenant governor, they'd serve a term or two. Then they'd run for governor, serve a term or two. Then they'd move over to the U.S. House and [then] they’d move over to the U.S. Senate. So there was a very clear line of succession going on. 

That really broke down in the 1970s when Pat Leahy got elected in 1974. Pat Leahy was a state's attorney. He had not served in the Legislature. He had not served in the U.S. House. And yet he was elected in 1974 as the very first Democratic senator from the state of Vermont. So it really started to change things. 

And I think things are much more wide open now. When there is a vacancy, all sorts of people start to run for that office. Maybe these people have political experience. Maybe these people have business experience. But there's a sense of, “This is the best time to run. And that's when I'm going to do it.”

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Angela Evancie: Well, this brings us to part two of Aaron's question, because at some point or another, we will have one or more freshmen lawmakers representing Vermont in D.C.. So will this affect the funding that's allocated to Vermont in federal legislation? 

Bob Kinzel: I think the answer is somewhat. In terms of federal funding, Sen. Patrick Leahy is the senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee right now. He's also the ranking Democrat minority member of that committee. So why does that matter? Because of these leadership positions, Leahy actually has some staff on the Appropriations Committee. And one of those jobs of the staff people for Sen. Leahy is to peruse every bill that goes through the Appropriations Committee to see if there might be some angle for some additional funding for Vermont. 

At the same time, we do have to note that in many bills, many appropriations bills, there's something called the “small state minimum.” So every state gets at least, let's say, a half a percent of the total amount being appropriated. 

So I think it's going to make some difference whenever Sen. Leahy decides to retire, but there is that “small state minimum” that will protect all the small states.

Why not county governance?

Angela Evancie: Should we move on to another question? All right. This one takes us to kind of a liminal zone in Vermont governance. 

Grant Reynolds: This is Grant Reynolds from Tinmouth, Vermont. My question is: In most states, local government is carried out by counties. In Vermont, it seems to be carried out by towns, and counties have very little function, other than the sheriff. 

Angela Evancie: So, what Grant wants to know is:

Grant Reynolds: Why don't Vermont counties have more functions? Wouldn't it be less expensive for one county to carry out local government functions? Thank you.

Angela Evancie: Grant isn't wrong, is he, Bob? I mean, Vermont counties — they really don't do very much, right? 

Bob Kinzel: They do very, very little. The counties — we have a county state's attorney, we have some judges at the county level. But really, compared to many other states, our counties do very, very little. 

And I think one of the reasons is that when Vermont was first settled, and it was settled from the south to the north, there were a handful of communities — Bennington, Brattleboro and then Manchester, and Norwich — these towns had very strong governments of their own. 

[MUSIC: “AN INTRODUCTION TO BEETLES” BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]

They had a real sense of independence and they wanted to make their own decisions about how they were going to govern themselves. 

And it wasn't felt that a county-wide government was needed or even desired. I think there was a feeling of, “We don't want county government, we want town government.” 

Paul Gillies: Now, I did see that in the late 1820s, the Legislature, I think almost thought they could inspire us to go to a county system because there had been so many fights over how the roads and bridges were treated between towns. 

Angela Evancie: Bob, another person you talk to is someone who might be familiar to our BLS listeners, because he has been an expert on our road name episodes. You talked to Paul Gillies. 

Bob Kinzel: That's right. Paul Gillies is a former deputy secretary of state. 

Paul Gillies: We had a proposal that the county judges would decide whether the roads should be laid out or discontinued or properly maintained. It lasted for about three years and then it was abandoned completely.

And ever since then, the town — at least for that kind of work, for highway work — has been the central entity. 

Black and white image of Lake Willoughby.
Credit Vermont Historical Society, Courtesy
A view of Lake Willoughby from the south on Aug. 28, 1908 by Wendall A. Mowry. One of the reasons for little county governance in Vermont? Mountains tend to cut up counties.

Bob Kinzel: You know, another consideration is that the boundaries for Vermont's counties don't follow sort of natural geographic lines. You know, there are mountains that divide some of our counties, and they even divide some of our towns. So this really fostered a much stronger town sense of government and not county government in Vermont.

Angela Evancie: So it sounds like the answer to Grant's question is sort of a combination of a legacy of really, really strong town government in Vermont. And then, like you just said, also our just natural landscape not being super conducive to that county structure.

Bob Kinzel: That's exactly right.

[MUSIC: BRAVE LITTLE STATE THEME SONG]

The Statehouse in ... Burlington?

Chris Pitt: Hello, my name is Chris Pitt, and I’m from Winooski.

Angela Evancie: So we've arrived at the final question of the episode, and this one is about where our state lawmakers report for duty.

Chris Pitt: My question is, has there ever been a movement to make Burlington the capital of Vermont.

Bob Kinzel: The answer is yes. There was an effort to make Burlington the capital of Vermont  — and it failed. 

First, we should point out that early on, Vermont's capital moved around every year. 

[MUSIC: “INSATIABLE TOAD” BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]

For instance, in 1778, Windsor became the first capital of Vermont. In 1779, it moved to the western part of the state to Bennington. And we saw this for the next 30 years. The capital of Vermont would shift from the eastern part of the state to the western part of the state. 

Angela Evancie: Really? 

Bob Kinzel: Yes, really! I mean, there was a time when Windsor was the capital. Bennington was, Manchester, Norwich, Rutland, Woodstock. Vergennes was the capital. Danville, Castleton, Middlebury — they all served as the capital of Vermont. 

Now, Burlington was chosen as the state capital for 1802,  just for that one year, when it was decided that representation was needed in the western part of the state, because we were going back and forth between the east and the west. 

Paul Gillies: And there was a lot of jealousy between the Easterners and the Westerners. I believe that the wide streets of Randolph reflect a belief that they could have the state capital there. 

Bob Kinzel: Well, it was decided that Vermont really did need a permanent capital. And so the debate was, where is it going to be? Is it going to be in the southern part of the state, in the northern part of the state? 

Paul Gillies: And so it was thought that if we put it in the middle somehow, that we would dissipate that kind of competition.

Two images, one a Daguerrotype, the other an Ambrotype, of the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier.
Credit Vermont Historical Society, Courtesy
The Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier before and after it burned down in the winter of 1857. Burlington tried to seize the opportunity to move the capital there, but to no avail.

Bob Kinzel: And Montpelier was chosen in 1808, and the first state capital was built at that time because it was really in the central part of the state. 

Now, in 1857, the state house burned down.

[MUSIC: “INSATIABLE TOAD” BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS”]

And I mean, there was nothing left. At that point — we were talking earlier about Burlington? This is when Burlington made a big push to say, “Hey, forget about Montpelier. If you're going to build a new state capital” – which had had to take place – “let's build it in Burlington. This is where we ought to have it.” And folks said, “No, no, no, we still want to have a central location. Montpelier has worked out well. Sorry, Burlington. It's not gonna happen.”

Angela Evancie: Well, Bob, thank you very much for coming on Brave Little State and sharing so much of your knowledge and expertise. This has been really fun. 

Bob Kinzel: It's been a great time. It's been my pleasure.

a grey line

Thanks to Lauren, Sam, Ellen,  Aaron, Grant and Chris for the great questions.

As always, if you have questions about Vermont that you want us to answer, head to bravelittlestate.org. While you’re there you can vote on the question you want us to tackle next.

Bob Kinzel is VPR's senior political reporter, and Angela Evancie is the host of Brave Little State. Our editor is Lynne McCrea and our theme music is by Ty Gibbons. Other music by Blue Dot Sessions. Elodie Reed is our digital producer, and we have engineering support from Chris Albertine.

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund. How can you support the show? Head to bravelittlestate.org/donate to become a sustaining member of our station. We can’t do this work without you.

Correction 2 p.m. 2/28/20: A previous version of this story didn't mention a scenario in which Sen. Bernie Sanders wins the presidency but Gov. Phil Scott isn't re-elected. In that case, Sanders would keep his Senate seat until a new Vermont governor was sworn in, who would then appoint the person to take Sanders' Senate seat.

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