Growing up in Vermont in the 1970s and 80s, I saw firsthand the power and importance of Town Meeting Day. The first Tuesday in March always seemed to bring with it a sense of hope and optimism -- that a group of people who care about each other and their town can come together to work through the complex and seemingly unsolvable problems that faced us, from budget shortfalls to leaking fire trucks, lawn ornament disputes to the costs of epic mud seasons.
My parents believed that Town Meeting was a sacred responsibility and so I was always allowed to take the day off school. But despite playing truant for the day, I learned just as much by observing my town’s collective energy and spirit in action. I remember sitting in the balcony of Damon Hall watching my parents engaging in a truly democratic process: my mother taking questions on the budget when she was school board chair, heated debates over zoning, and Herb Ogden making the case that banning television in Hartland would give our children a substantial advantage over the children of other towns. That proposal, you might know, didn’t pass.
I am so incredibly grateful that I grew up in Vermont and that I had those experiences. From Town Meeting, I learned that people engage in their community when they know that their voice and opinions matter, even if their position doesn’t alway prevail. They volunteer more and value the people who work on their behalf. And this happens in every corner of the state. During my years as a member of the Vermont House and later the Senate, I visited dozens of different town meetings across Vermont. I saw Vermonters doing their duty as citizens, showing up, listening, telling dry jokes, expressing their opinions, even when it was hard and caused conflict with their neighbors and, in some cases, members of their own households.
In my work at AmeriCorps*VISTA and Google, I have always loved telling people about Town Meeting Day in Vermont. “You mean, the citizens actually get to debate and vote on the budget?” people always ask incredulously. To me, this reaction is a clear testament to how special our Vermont democratic values really are. I have tried to bring the spirit of local democracy to the other communities I’ve worked with and I’ve always thought that many communities could benefit from hashing things out, voting in an open forum and then visiting as neighbors afterwards, ideally over some pie.
Vermont is facing a set of challenges that may seem so complex as to be unsolvable: rising poverty, homelessness, the opiate epidemic, a major demographic shift in an aging state. The solutions to these challenges and the building of a stronger economy will not come from Montpelier alone. They will take Vermonters doing what we do best: coming together to collaboratively solve problems.
This past Tuesday, on Town Meeting Day, volunteers in every county across Vermont spoke with voters and collected signatures to get us on the ballot this fall. Vermonters took pictures across the state, from Bennington to Newport, documenting the energy that surrounds Town Meeting Day.
To all of you who volunteered and joined in -- thank you!