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‘Exercise In Social Solidarity’: On Town Meeting Day In Kirby, Vt.

A man in a jacket and baseball cap in front of a white building with a sign with red letters reading kirby town hall
Erica Heilman
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VPR
Kirby Town Moderator John McClaughry oversees town meeting each year, which he calls an "exercise in social solidarity."

Town meeting day in Vermont is the first Tuesday in March. This year many towns are moving to Australian ballot because of the pandemic. But not all: Up in Kirby, the clerks, select board and town moderator will meet on March 2, but just long enough to entertain a motion to move the meeting to May or June, when they can hold the meeting outside.

John McClaughry has been a Vermont state representative and senator, and he was a senior policy adviser in the Reagan White House. He’s a prolific commentator. But probably the job he’s done longest is serving as Kirby town moderator. Kirby, population of about 509, is down from its peak population of 520, which was in 1840.

Independent producer Erica Heilman went up and talked with Kirby’s town moderator, John McClaughry.

A wooden door and American flag
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
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The town of Kirby currently has a population of 394, down from its peak of 520 people in 1840.

John McClaughry: “Well, we have about 390 voters registered in town. So of the 390, we’ll probably get 60 or 70 at a good town meeting. By ‘good’ I mean well-attended. The town meeting is not just an exercise in democracy, it’s an exercise in social solidarity, if you will. And here’s the only time in Kirby where you really have a chance to meet your neighbors. We have no school, no church, no post office, no business except a few home businesses, so we’re basically a diamond-shaped 16,000 acres of northern New England that has no center and no joint purpose.

“There was a time when there were 42 farms shipping milk from the town of Kirby. There are three now. Possibly four. So we’re a very small town.”

Erica Heilman: “If there are no businesses, there’s no school, there’s no commerce, why bother? Why do you care about who lives next door, then? What does a ‘town’ mean in that case?”

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John McClaughry: “That’s a very good question. From a practical sense, our functions have been stripped away. Besides the roads, we don’t really have the full panoply of municipal functions that bring us together to make important decisions.

“But there’s something about it that goes beyond the practical matters like dog licenses and culverts and road plowing. The town meeting is the center of a democratic concept of self government. And our system in America, and especially in New England, is built on the idea of informed citizens governing their own affairs with a minimum of instructions from the state capitol or the national capitol.

“The idea that we can come together and talk with each other and adjust our interests back and forth and reach a decision that we can all support on matters that affect our lives, although admittedly there are fewer and fewer ... is a very important concept. And preserving that opportunity, even in its reduced form, is extremely important to me.”

"... you have a right to be here, you have a right to be heard, your voice is as good as anybody's voice, and although you may not be on the winning side every time, you know that you're exercising your right to democratic self government, and can make a difference." — John McClaughry, Kirby Town Moderator

Erica Heilman: “How is this kind of discourse that happens in these rooms, how is it rare now in comparison to how public discourse happens in general now?”

John McClaughry: “What’s rare about this is that you’re making a decision. Face to face. You’re not throwing a piece of paper in the ballot box, which we have to do of course, because of the nature of society, but everybody’s got something to contribute that they know that most people don’t.

“One of the most fascinating debates I ever heard in this room were two guys who didn’t ordinarily have much to say, but they were both truck mechanics. And they worked on heavy equipment. There’s an article on the warning, ‘Shall the town buy a new grader?’ And the two of them went back and forth. One of them was for an International Harvester, one of them was for a GM, or a John Deere or something. And I wasn’t knowledgeable in this debate, and most people weren’t. But most people understood that these guys worked on engines. And they serviced graders. And they could tell you what happens with a grader after you buy it and put it out on the road for a couple years. You’re going to have to have a ring job on the GM and not on the John Deere.

“I mean, that was the kind of debate that we had, and it educated everyone else. The selectmen listened to it, we aired it all out, and everybody listened, and we made a decision, and that’s what our town will do.

Hands holding old town meeting pamphlets
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
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According to John McClaughry, everyone knows more about something than other people, and town meeting can be a time where neighbors educate one another.

“That’s one of the great things about town meeting. It reassures the people who come here, that where they have something to say and not just blowing hot air, that the townspeople will give them a respectful hearing, because sometimes that experience becomes relevant, and people are grateful to have that input.

“You’re not petitioning a higher power to do your will. You’re not going to a hearing of the Senate’s Natural Resources Committee. Many of the hearings the Legislature has are pro forma exercises, which have very little impact on the actual legislators. But they have to do it. But here, you have a right to be here, you have a right to be heard, your voice is as good as anybody’s voice, and although you may not be on the winning side every time, you know that you’re exercising your right to democratic self government, and can make a difference.”

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Correction 1:50 p.m. 2/24/2021: An earlier version of this story stated Kirby's population was 394 people. Kirby actually has a population of an estimated 509 people, and has 394 voters. 

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