NEWFANE — Is Vermont’s tradition of annual town meeting obsolete?
That was the question asked during the premier of the Windham County Inter-Library Debate Club, hosted by the Moore Free Library on Tuesday.
“Town meeting is obsolete,” argued Richard Watts, the director of the Center for Research on Vermont at UVM and a Putney native. Watts noted that due to low attendance, between 5 and 10 percent of voters are making all the decisions for their towns.
And even when voters have all day to cast an Australian ballot, as opposed to voting from the floor during town meeting, the average is only about 25 percent, noted Susan Clark, co-author, with University of Vermont political science professor Frank Bryan, of “All Those In Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community.” Clark is also Middlesex’s town moderator.
But town meeting is not obsolete, said Clark. “In fact, we’ve never needed town meeting more.”
Clark said that during this time of political polarization, “alternative facts” and conspiracy theories, it’s important for neighbors who might vehemently disagree to meet on an annual basis.
“Our opponents are not our enemies,” said Clark. “We can listen, disagree and even find a way forward. If we don’t, it means our roads might not get plowed.”
The online debate was moderated by Meg Mott, professor emerita of political science at the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts & Interdisciplinary Studies and Putney’s town moderator.
“What does it mean to listen to someone you don’t agree with?” asked Mott, alluding to the deep divide in American politics that is evident even in small-town Vermont.
Tuesday’s debate was the kick-off event for the Windham County Inter-Library Debate Club. This “friendly debate league,” as it was described in a news release, will meet on the second Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m., April through July, to debate topics using the Braver Angels Debate format.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, annual town meeting was canceled in many towns, replaced by online informational sessions and Australian ballots.
But those remedies meant the deliberative process of discussing warrant articles fell to the wayside, said Mott.
“Will we go back to the old way?” she asked.
While deliberation might not be feasible via online platforms, said Watts, they do allow more people to engage in the process.
Watts also noted that attendance has dropped at town meetings because much of the historical local control exercised by Vermonters has been usurped by the state.
“When you take away local decision making, you make town meeting less relevant to people,” said Watts. “We have to rethink how we conduct traditional town meeting.”
Howard Burrows, of Brattleboro and the founder of the Library Innovation Center, argued that it’s impossible to generate trust between opposing neighbors in a town meeting because community ideals “are not what they used to be.”
“To generate trust, you have to come up with ways for everyone to share in the pains, costs and benefits [of town meeting decisions],” said Burrows, who said libraries, with their extensive resources, are well-suited to help people rediscover the responsibilities of democracy.
“As long as we have towns, town meetings are an essential part of our democracy,” countered Annamarie Pluhar, resident of Dummerston and author of “Sharing Housing: A Guidebook for Finding and Keeping Good Housemates.”
While town meetings are underappreciated and even boring at times, she said, “boring is good, boring is rational.”
And even while attendance at town meetings has diminished, she said, “Town meeting gives citizens a say in what happen in their towns and beyond.”
Clark called town meeting “Vermont’s secret superpower,” which has strengthened the state’s “democratic DNA.”
She called annual town meeting a “basic refresher course in civics” that too many Americans have forgotten.
“We don’t have to like each other, but we do need to respect each other,” said Clark. “There is such a thing as common good.”
Social capital, a sense of community, is built by working through problems together, insisted Clark.
“Are Australian ballots really the answer to our problems?” she asked.
“Should decisions really be made by people who have the time, the comfort level and the commitment to spend a few hours with their neighbors at town hall?” coutnered Watts.
Dummerston resident Paul Normandeau said online platforms lack the human touch.
“Many times the only time we get to see our neighbors in the community and hear their viewpoints is at town meeting,” he said.
Clark said rather than focusing on one day every year for decision making, towns could be more transparent, sharing information “the other 364 days.”
“Town meeting was never intended to be the only time community members hear from each other,” said Clark.
The next session of the Windham County Inter-Library Debate Club is scheduled for Tuesday, April 13, at 7 p.m. To register, visit https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZwod-ugqD8jHdN4T98ZI99siP_q2jLXLkH0.