Robert’s Rules, or Robert’s Rules of Order, is a manual of parliamentary procedure originally penned in 1876 (revised some 12 times since) and it’s how we here in Brattleboro run our Representative Town Meeting (RTM). This year’s RTM ran 11 hours and 45 minutes from start to finish with 45 minutes for lunch and maybe another 30 minutes worth of breaks throughout. Rest assured, it’s a very long day with close to 50 representatives from three districts stuffed onto a Zoom call filled with plenty of “can you hear me” and “please unmute.” Those things make you wish you hadn’t run sometimes, but overall, it’s the smallest price to pay for our little piece of democracy.
First off, I would really like to tip my cap to David Gartenstein (recently elected as town moderator) who I feel did a great job keeping things moving and keeping everything in order. Second, there’s this piece of Robert’s Rule of Order that allows you to propose bringing a debate to an end by “Calling the Question.” It’s truly meant for circular discussion when no forward ground is being made. But it’s not meant to speed things up, which is odd, because that’s precisely what it does. So, me, I’m the “Call the Question” guy; I read the “room,” which is hard to do over Zoom, and I try to determine if conversation is going to change the outcome. Since calling the question ends debate if it passes, it needs a super majority to pass, in this case 66 percent or two-thirds of the vote. So, it’s all together likely that I could call the question and discover that people want to debate, and I could lose my proposal. That however didn’t happen; I called the question 14 times and 14 times it passed, many of those times with an 80 to 90 percentile. That’s not to brag, it’s merely being able to understand how those that share your position feel.
Of course, this can please some and annoy others and I was accused of ending the debate prematurely, to which I would remind everyone that I merely posed (or called in this case) the question. It takes a two-thirds majority to uphold or turn down my suggestion. So, here’s the thing with democracy: it’s hard, it’s clunky, it is the furthest thing from streamlined and, frankly, it’s a ton of work. But in order for it to work it needs an involved citizenry. If you are silent in this process, things will happen that you don’t want to happen, and you’ll then find yourself pushing rocks uphill to make things change. The easiest thing to do is have choices when we step into the voter’s booth. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve voted for Town Meeting reps when you could vote for up to 15 and there were only 10 names on the ballot. What does that mean? That means, you can only get one vote and you’re in! To me, that’s not a true democracy; a true democracy involves choice and activism. Such was the case when I lost my bid for school board; the district had two very strong candidates and only a little over 100 votes separated us with over 2,000 votes cast. That’s democracy! Choices!
Also, it takes a long time to get things through the policy meat grinder. I was having this conversation with one of our candidates for Windham County senator. The things you put forth now might take two or four years to push through and another four years to perfect. But we live in a world that wants instant gratification, so waiting eight years isn’t realistic. Also, a lot can change in that time, so people coming in could simply squash an idea after four years of it being championed. Again, it’s a clunky and slow process that requires a ton of will and patience. But if you’re involved and you can stand watching the sausage being made then you can be rewarded with effecting some change that could have a positive outcome on folks. But it takes being challenged and providing choices, even if those choices go against what you want to see. So, to prevent that, you need to become a person that encourages people to run for these slots and you can’t do it in the weeks leading up to the vote, you must do it now.