Toby Talbot / AP File Photo
Officials count ballots in Craftsbury, one of several dozen Vermont communities that approved advisory articles this March town meeting season.
Vermonters at several dozen March town meetings added their voices to the national debate on guns and tar sands oil transport by approving resolutions seeking tighter controls.
Now champions of the two causes face a new question: What’s next?
Sponsors of the two advisory articles proposed their ballot items after seeing other Vermont activists gain voices and votes through similar means — perhaps most successfully, the GE-Free Vermont Campaign that convinced 70 communities to support a resolution about genetically engineered food and seeds that, in turn, led the state Legislature to enact the Farmers’ Right to Know GMO Seed Labeling Act in 2004.
But town meeting talk doesn’t necessarily translate into state or national action.
Last March almost a dozen advocacy groups persuaded nearly 70 Vermont communities to ratify an article supporting a constitutional amendment for federal campaign spending limits. A year later, supporters have yet to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court decision — Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission — that rules corporations share the same First Amendment rights as individuals to donate freely to causes.
Such lack of progress isn’t deterring advocates of this month’s articles from pushing their own agendas.
Six municipalities voted to ask lawmakers to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, require background checks for every gun sold, and make arms trafficking a federal crime.
“Our efforts cannot bring back the 20 innocent children murdered in Newtown, Conn., or the 33 people murdered with guns every day in America,” organizers of Communities Against Assault Weapons said on their petitions. “But we can prevent future tragedies by passing common-sense legislation.”
Spurred by the Dec. 14 school shooting, the grass-roots group saw its nonbinding resolution — based on language from Mayors Against Illegal Guns — win passage in Bradford, Hartland, Norwich, Strafford, Thetford and Woodstock. It was tabled in Vershire and set for a vote April 6 in Hartford.
“We’re definitely committed to keep meeting and keep talking, and I certainly know we’ll be wanting to communicate with legislators,” says organizer Laurie Levin, a Norwich lawyer. “It’s a question of figuring out the most effective way to do that.”
Gun owners have questioned statewide support for the article, as less than a dozen communities considered the issue. But Levin says her group had little time to formulate, let alone distribute, petitions since the Newtown shooting.
“I think it’s incredible what we did in just weeks,” Levin says. “I think if we had had more time, it would have been voted on across the state.”
The other nonbinding resolution approved by multiple municipalities asked voters to “Keep Vermont Tar Sands Free” by blocking the use of a 1950 pipeline to transport Canadian oil through the state.
Ripton environmental activist Bill McKibben has made headlines for his opposition to a proposed $7 billion, 1,700-mile oil pipeline from Canada’s tar sands to Texas refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. But organizers of the 350 Vermont climate-change campaign also are concerned about the possibility of oil moving through the state’s Northeast Kingdom for export in Portland, Maine.
The volunteer group considers the issue one of statewide interest because the pipeline not only runs through the towns of Barton, Burke, Guildhall, Irasburg, Jay, Newport, Sutton, Troy, and Victory, but also intersects 15 natural waterways that lead to other parts of Vermont.
As a result, it convinced 29 municipalities to voice “opposition to the transport of tar sands oil through Vermont, and deep concern about the risks of such transport for public health and safety, property values and our natural resources.”
“The resolution is important — it has neighbors talking to neighbors about this issue — but it’s one piece of a larger effort,” 350 Vermont organizer Andrew Simon says. “What’s next is to widen this discussion.”
An informal coalition made up of the state offices of the Conservation Law Foundation, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club as well as the Vermont Natural Resources Council and Vermont Public Interest Research Group is exploring regulatory options. In addition, the state House and Senate are considering their own resolutions expressing opposition.
“Our feeling is ultimately all of the legislative or judicial power derives from democracy,” Simon says. “People educating and expressing themselves will ultimately have an impact on those legal and legislative levels.”
The “Keep Vermont Tar Sands Free” item was approved in Bennington, Burlington, Cabot, Calais, Charlotte, Chittenden, Cornwall, Craftsbury, East Montpelier, Fayston, Grand Isle, Greensboro, Hinesburg, Marshfield, Middlebury, Middlesex, Montgomery, Montpelier, Moretown, Plainfield, Putney, Randolph, Ripton, Starksboro, Waitsfield, Walden, Warren, Woodbury and Worcester.
For all their success, organizers of “Keep Vermont Tar Sands Free” missed out on one opportunity.
“We heard from Al Jazeera television,” Simon says, “but then they were called away to cover the effect of climate change on the Iditarod sled dog race.”
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