Dear Mr. Pappas, I am the moderator for the town of Orange. Since 2009, I have tried to guide the legislative body of the town as well as my predecessor, Kermit Richardson, who did so for 50 years.
Last week you published your own article calling for an end to traditional town meetings. You described town meetings as a “relic” and “a display of our dysfunction.” You suggested that the voters are “not informed,” that they “make fools of themselves,” that they are “nosy,” and that their only interest is in keeping their taxes low. My experience in the town of Orange leads me to believe otherwise. Allow me a few points in this regard:
You have suggested that town meetings undermine the hard work of the school and select boards. Town meetings do not undermine the hard work of town and school officials if the hard work is deemed to be in the best interest of the community. School boards and select boards certainly put in long hours preparing budgets, making decisions and overseeing the work of the town. But if the citizens, who, in a constitutional republic, are the government, do not approve of the work, then they have every right, even a responsibility, to undermine the work of the boards.
You have suggested that the voters are ill prepared, that most don’t understand operating budgets, and that the boards are more knowledgeable. This year in Orange, we debated the school board’s proposed article to repair a portion of the roof on the school. The board had asked for a special allocation of $15,000. Two of the voters questioned the board about a “sinking roof fund” that had been approved years ago, a fund that had allegedly been set aside to repair the roof in the future. The board could not explain where the funds had been spent. I am not suggesting any wrongdoing on the part of the board. Apparently, the roofing fund had been created years before, by a different board. But the back and forth between the board and the body was helpful to all in making decisions. Holding our elected officials’ feet to the fire is our responsibility as citizens of a free republic.
You have suggested that it would be more effective to centralize services at the county level so that we “don’t have to fret over them every first Tuesday in March.” Fretting over these decisions is what makes our republic vibrant. Centralization only leads to tyranny. Centralization leads to more bureaucracy. Centralization destroys local control. This year, in Orange, after much debate, the body voted down the proposed school budget. It was my impression from the stage that the voters were not upset with the work of the school board, but rather with the fact that the school board has no real control. Education has already been centralized in Vermont. The board acknowledges that it has little to no control over special education spending, teacher salaries and benefits, testing requirements, and high school tuition costs. The people of the town of Orange currently remain helpless, thanks in large part to the centralization of the education system.
You have suggested that the turnout for town meeting is low because it is on a Tuesday. In Orange, voters had previously complained that they could not take time off from work for a daytime meeting. We have tried to increase attendance at town meeting by holding it in the evening for the past several years. However, attendance has not increased. This year, we heard complaints that attendance has not increased for the evening meetings because baby sitters are too expensive. I would suggest that civic involvement is simply not a priority to the voters. I would suggest that they feel powerless in the face of ever-encroaching centralization.
You have suggested that turnout may be low because voters are self-interested, bullies or narcissistic, thereby driving other voters away. I agree with your assessment that moderators must be more familiar with Robert’s Rules. It is the moderator’s responsibility to maintain order, and doing so prevents rude outbursts and uncivil discussion. In the digital age, we, as a society, seem to have forgotten how to engage in a civilized debate regarding the merits of an issue without pointing fingers and calling names. We seem to have forgotten that there are still two sides to every story. Politicized television programming has surely hastened this descent into indecency. But we can still learn these skills in the context of a well-managed town meeting. Bullying, shouting and name calling should never be tolerated by a moderator, who has authority to remove any such offender from a meeting or to fine them.
You have suggested that there must be a better, 21st century way. I am sure that there is a 21st century way but do not believe that it would be better. At our meeting in Orange this year, we voted down a measure suggesting Australian balloting for the school budget. On the open floor, the body discussed the pros and cons of such an approach and noted that, eventually, people will want to cast their vote from their cellphone. This thought may be intriguing, but it is entirely terrifying to me. How could anyone intelligently vote without hearing what their neighbors have to say? I have witnessed several occasions when the body has been swayed to reconsider a decision when a new nugget of truth is spoken. I have seen school and town budgets amended on the floor and passed as amended, thus avoiding the effort of multiple Australian ballot votes.
You have suggested that we don’t need town meetings in order to be effective citizens. I respectfully disagree. Democracy is not simply voting. Democracy is a system of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people. In order to exercise that power in a way that preserves the liberty of the individual and achieves the goals of the group, each citizen must educate themselves prior to casting their vote. Town meetings create effective, educated citizens who can cast their vote in a meaningful way because the citizens are educated throughout the meeting. They educate themselves through legitimate and rational debate.
Freedom is never free. Freedom requires sacrifice. If Vermonters wish to retain the right to govern themselves, they must engage themselves at the local level. I call on the citizens of Orange to sacrifice an evening and to engage themselves in the upcoming special meeting that we will be having to determine the school budget. I call on the people of Orange to exercise their God-given right to self-government, as described in our state and federal constitutions. For if you fail to exercise your rights, those rights will be stripped from you and turned over to a centralized bureaucracy who will decide what is in your best interests for you.
Adrian Otterman has been the moderator for town meeting in Orange since 2009.MORE IN Commentary
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