Can Town Meeting Day Survive Even With Lower Attendance?

Mar 6, 2018

How sustainable is the idea of a community-wide gathering to discuss and decide town issues?  It’s something Vermont is grappling with as residents across the state participate in today’s Town Meeting Day tradition.

Town Meeting Day has been a tradition in Vermont since the 1760’s. It’s a time when residents of most towns discuss local issues like budgets and elect local officials.   But fewer people have been attending over the years. Some towns now hold evening or weekend meetings so more people can attend.  Hinesburg and Middlebury, for example, held their meetings Monday evening and any ballot voting is completed on Tuesday.

Author, commentator, and entrepreneur Bill Schubart has lived in Vermont since 1947. He says Town Meeting Day used to have a more contentious side.  “Town Meeting has had a bit of a rip-snorting edge to it over the years and I’m actually seeing less of that now. I’d almost rather see you know some of the animation, still all in the context of being mutually respectful.  But now people come to the meeting with their minds made up. And my fear is that we lose the capability to listen to each other, even if we’re speaking loudly.”

Town of Kirby moderator John McClaughry has been leading the meeting in that Northeast Kingdom town for 52 years. He has become pessimistic about the future of the Vermont tradition.  “We’ve gone from 72, the largest number of live bodies in the room, down to about 40 over those years. And I still have a just an ideological belief in the importance of accountability of citizens for maintaining their own democracy and making the decisions that affect their lives rather than stand there dumbly empty handed while some bureaucrats and legislators and panjandrums 50 miles down in Montpelier or 600 miles down in Washington make the decisions that govern their lives. Local democracy is, I’m afraid, a dying institution.”

McClaughry believes that Town Meeting Day is living on borrowed time.  “The state has constantly sucked powers away from the municipalities into the state’s maw and left the smallest towns with very little to do.  So the town is not as nearly important a thing as it was 50 years ago. And it’s not nearly as important a symbol of citizen democracy as it was 50 years ago.  Fifty years ago the people of Kirby and other small towns would say ‘Well our town ain’t much, but it’s ours and how it succeeds and fails is up to us and by Jeezum we gotta go to Town Meeting to see that it’s done right.’  Now that would be a comical statement.”

Schubart is more optimistic about Town Meeting Day’s future.  “I think it will depend somewhat on whether or not we re-introduce civics and media literacy and journalism into the school cirriculum as required. But I do think that there will be a generational core of people who will advocate for town meetings. I think that Town Meeting is a gem that people will want to preserve.”  

Town Meeting Day is held annually in most Vermont towns on the first Tuesday in March.