Mr. Pappas wrote a very eloquent piece asking if town meetings should be abandoned in favor of the more efficient Australian ballot system. His argument is that the present town meeting is a legacy of a bygone era, a simpler time, when citizens could effectively vote on important local issues. He feels the present town meeting has become a showcase for the ill-informed and bad-tempered. In short: Wrong decisions are made and feelings are hurt. If we replaced the circus with informational meetings and private balloting, this would safeguard the democratic process and deliver “better” results by informed people who are free from mob rule. I believe Mr. Pappas is correct in saying that a more representative, efficient system could be devised, but I think his arguments fall short.
The notion that the essential character of the meeting has been warped is wrong. His view of yesteryear’s civic gatherings is filled with corn-syrup treacle — even invoking Norman Rockwell. I spoke with a friend who was a selectman 25 years ago in an unnamed small Vermont town. This new flatlander selectman brought up the idea of issuing a zoning regulation limiting the number of abandoned cars that were allowed in yards. He was immediately threatened with violence. The motion was withdrawn. (Note: This town still has no local zoning.) It’s an extreme case, but it speaks to something at the heart of Pappas’ argument — rationality, civility and efficiency are in the public interest.
Hard to argue the other side, but I’m going to try. That town I mentioned has a neighboring town which adopted stringent rules. The result is that town has economically prospered — it isn’t all attributed to zoning regs, but certainly that helped. It attracted numerous families “from away.” One could make a very strong case that my friend’s town should have done the same. The format of the town meeting aided in preventing change. Case closed; however, there is something the former town retains which the other town has lost — a real sense of community.
It’s hard to explain, and it sounds irrational, but my friend’s town, with its continually cantankerous town meeting, retained something that the other town lost. I have no fetish for ignorance or anger — but the premium placed on clean civility and careful decision-making overrides something more important that cannot be quantified. We are a state that has been born of hardscrabble individualists, and that legacy should stand. In a political scientist’s world things are “broken,” but I never really thought academics have their finger on the pulse. People are as ignorant, uninformed and bullying as they always were.
I am from “away” and have lived in many more efficient places, but I choose to live in Vermont. Behind the clean facade of other states’ maximally efficient local governments lies a nasty dehumanizing slow death of anonymity.
I was present at this year’s town of Plainfield slugfest. As a selectman, I can tell you I did not relish spending hours watching neighbor savage neighbor over a badly worded amendment. There is, however, something more to the process than can be easily described. Trying to explain the nuance is impossible in a scientific light. It doesn’t make sense that a less-efficient, more-acrimonious system would build a better sense of community, but it does.
Mr. Pappas is absolutely correct, but he’s wrong.
I think Vermonters’ town meetings echo the spirit of the famous quote by Winston Churchill: “We can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.”
And as Vermonters, we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Bram Towbin, of Plainfield, is a member of the Select Board.
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