Town Meeting Day: A Relic of the Past, or a Vision for the Future?

As town meeting day quickly approaches, residents of Calais have some big decisions to make which will greatly impact the future of Town Meetings in our small community.  If Calais adopts the four or five different Articles regarding switching town decision making away from votes from the floor to Australian Ballot, it will be the end of town meeting as we know it.  As it’s stood for generations there are dozens of issues up for discussion at town meeting, some as small as whether or not to give a couple hundred dollars to each of several local non-profits, others as large as the school budget and the funding of important and expensive town projects.  With discussions and amendments from the floor, proposed dollar amounts can be altered to best balance the budgets of the tax-payers with the fiscal needs of the community. If we change all financial decisions to Australian Ballot they will be all or nothing votes without discussion and I fear important items will go unfunded because of an inability of the community to discuss and compromise.  As I’ve always taken town meeting for granted, facing it’s possible demise has given me pause to reflect.

I started attending town meeting sometime around the 4th grade, still nearly a decade under the voting age.  My parents went religiously and felt it was important to expose us to this grand tradition, this last vestige of true democracy.  I remember my friends all playing outside and building forts in the large snow piles created by the town plow and feeling torn.  I liked playing with my friends but I also had a dorky inner curiosity of the adult world that most of my friends didn’t share.  I found I actually preferred standing at the top of the rickety old town hall steps, listening in to the hotly debated topics I didn’t understand.

As I grew older I missed some meetings but was still a frequent visitor. My mom’s been making pies for the mid-day free community lunch for longer than I can remember.  There were a few years that stand out in my memory that my parents didn’t go, but I made the mile and a half trek on foot, setting out early so I could make my way slowly through the deep mud ruts of an early mud-season thaw.  Even the years when Town Meeting isn’t pretty and even before I was able to legally participate, I could feel it’s importance in my very being.

When the time came to go to college, I still wasn’t of voting age and had never directly participated in a Town Meeting other than perhaps finding the bravery to speak a few words once or twice on an issue I felt strongly towards.  Although I had traveled abroad far more than most people my age, I was still a sheltered kid from Maple Corner and much of my first year of college was dedicated to learning that Maple Corner wasn’t anything like the rest of the world.

I clearly remember a day in late February of my freshman year at St. Lawrence University when a professor told us we were having a test of some sort the following Tuesday.  At first I didn’t think anything of it, but when I put it in my calendar I realized it was the first Tuesday of March.  I (thankfully) waited until after class and asked the professor if it would be possible to take the test a day early for those of us who wanted to attend town meeting.  He looked at me like I had three heads and said “what’s town meeting.”  I think somewhere deep in my subconscious I wanted to believe America was a true Democracy, that even with all of the horrible things I was beginning to learn about that our country was doing and historically had done, people still had some say in it all.  Part of me had always envisioned  Town Meeting Day as a national holiday, when everything else was put aside and everyone in the country gathered in their cute little 19th century town hall, ate a potluck lunch, and decided on what direction they wanted their community to go in the coming year.  My Statistics Professor smashed that vision.

It was around this time in my life that I began identifying as an Anarchist.  I was a Sociology Major and spent a lot of time reading about different governments of all kinds and came to see them all as fairly tyrannical.   I spent long nights in the library searching history books for an example of a national government that truly represented all it’s people, and didn’t succumb to greed and corruption at the cost of throwing it’s poorest and most vulnerable populations under the bus.  Other than fond memories of town meeting day in my childhood home which was seeming more and more like a fairy tale land, I failed to find any.   So I declared myself an anarchist and began marching in the streets waving a black flag demanding an end to injustice.

Though always growing and adapting, my political views haven’t actually changed all that significantly in the last nearly decade and a half.  When asked to define my beliefs, I would explain that I didn’t view anarchy as Chaos, but rather as a world which replaced a broad oppressive government with community based decision-making bodies.  A world in which all citizens had a say in the decisions that effected their day to day lives.  Looking back I realize it’s in many ways a simplistic world-view, one which I think I based loosely on my experience with Town Meeting Day.  On the other hand, I still identify as an Anarchist under this same ideology, and I still envision a future world in which decisions are made based on what is best for all people and the planet as opposed to simply what will make the politicians and their friends wealthier.  I think it’s been proven time and time again that this simply isn’t going to happen within our current system of governance, though I don’t pretend to have the answers on what to replace it with.  I do know that from war to climate change to legalized discrimination, what we are doing as a society isn’t working.  Time is running out to make some substantive change, and whatever we come up with, I’m hoping it involves Town Meeting Day.

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2 thoughts on “Town Meeting Day: A Relic of the Past, or a Vision for the Future?

  1. Jamie, your comments are always so thoughtful and right-on. I especially appreciate your thoughts on Town Meeting. I, too, remember playing in the snow outside before I was too young to vote, but also having an interest in the “politics” upstairs. I’m finding it hard to believe that now WE are the ones upstairs! No, Maple Corner and Calais are not like the rest of the world, but the rest of the world impacts even our little enclave here in Central Vermont. BUT through Town Meeting, community service and social events, we have a way to come together to, as much as possible, take control of our community’s laws and policies. Australian ballot voting takes away that control. At Town Meeting we can listen, change our minds, amend an article and make what we vote on truly represent our town. Democracy is much more than a ballot.

  2. Thank you for the post Jamie. Your comment about not having the answers as far as what to replace our current system with is something I wrestle with daily. I too know that what we are doing is wrong in so many ways and that it does not work but what to replace it with? Sometimes I wonder if there are just too many of us on this planet to have anything work for the benefit of all. Sometimes I wonder if this is just the human condition as it has always been. History was never one of my strong points. I much preferred being in shop class or the art room but everything I have learned since leaving school shows me that human history if full of injustice, corruption and killing and that the ones that specialize in these skills seem to be the ones that rise to the top no matter what form of governance a given society has established. It’s a sad state of affairs…. But, it is a sunny day out there so I’m going to go out and enjoy it!

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