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Writing Portfolio – The Magic of Town Meeting

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The Magic of Town Meeting – March 3, 2012
The Caledonian-Record
by Leah Carey
Staff Writer

If only national politicians would visit a Vermont town meeting, perhaps some of the civility would return to Washington. That’s what Nicholas Ecker-Racz thinks, and after 24 years as the moderator in Glover, he knows a lot about conducting a civil debate. “Everyone understands that we’re here to come to some kind of rational decision that will accommodate disparate beliefs. But at the national level they just trash the other person, impugn their motives, imply that they’re a bad person. I think those national legislators would learn a lot by coming to one of our meetings.”

To that end, Ecker-Racz has suggested that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders make a resolution on the floor of the United States Senate saying that any national legislator who wants to observe and participate in a Vermont town meeting would be welcome. “They might get back to their original intention to be effective legislators when they see how our small towns do it.”

As a moderator, Ecker-Racz feels that his duty is to make sure that everyone has their say, even if not everyone knows the finer points of Robert’s Rules of Order. “I always make an effort to make it quite clear that if you don’t know the name of the motion or how to do what you want to do, raise your hand and ask me. I’ll help you put it in the right words. It’s giving people the opportunity to express themselves and exercise their democratic rights.”

If You Don’t Go To Town Meeting… I Don’t Want To Hear It

Carol Fisher of Lyndonville is another long-time, and outspoken, participant in her town meeting. She hasn’t missed a Lyndonville town meeting in 34 years.

In fact, town meeting is so important to her that she will not entertain complaints throughout the year from people who were not at the meeting. “If I can’t go and represent me and speak to the correct people at the correct time, then I have no place the rest of the year to complain about anything. … [Other people] complain downtown, in White’s Market, but they won’t show up at town meeting. I just look at them and say, ‘I didn’t see you at town meeting.’ I ran my own business for 32 years and I would even tell my customers that. ‘I don’t want to discuss it with you. You weren’t there, you didn’t vote, you have no say in this.’”

One of Fisher’s frustrations is the declining attendance at meetings. She calls for ballot votes on some issues just to get a head count. In times past, she said there were easily over 400 people, but last year “I think there were way under 200. It’s very disappointing.”

Getting All Worked Up

Frederick Webster of Coventry is 91 years old and has been going to town meetings for…well, a long time. “I go oftentimes because there’s an issue that I feel I need to either support or reject. I guess I’m kind of well known for that. This year in Coventry I’m kind of disappointed, I don’t see a thing I’m going to get upset over. That’s too bad,” he chuckled.

He remembers a long-ago town meeting when he was a child and a lot of French immigrant families had moved into town. “They stayed to themselves,” he explained, but one year a man came to the meeting to speak up in a debate about installing electric street lights. Despite speaking very little English, he got up to say how poor the roads in the “French” part of town were. “You think the French no good. I tell you something, the French are just as good as nobody,” Webster remembered him saying. “He made his point. He got up and spoke and he made a little mistake in his English, but people knew very well what he meant. It’s not how you say something, it’s the meaning of what you say.” The town decided to put off installing the electric lights that year so they could fix the roads.

Follow The Money

Russ Hutchins of St. Johnsbury has attended town meeting every year for 36 years. “It’s democracy at its best,” he said. “It’s a tradition that most of the country doesn’t experience.”

Hutchins was a corporate financial officer at Fairbanks Scales for 10 years, so he pays special attention to the budget. “I like the numbers! I like to see what we’re spending and where we’re spending it. If I have questions on why we’re spending it, that’s what town meeting is all about.”

Hutchins reminisced about Delano Persons, an old-timer who made a real impression. “He always came with a jug of fluid. It looked like it might be whiskey, it was that color. Nobody ever said anything, but he always came and he always had his container with him. It was funny. I think he just did it for attention. He was a great guy.”

A Perfect Democracy

Steve Heath of Franconia, N.H., has served in positions ranging from selectman to planning board member to rescue squad member. “I have a pretty good idea of how the town operates and what issues are important to me,” he said. “It’s a small town, a perfect democracy in action. Everyone gets to have their say. You actually can make a difference at town meeting.”

He sees attendance at meetings fluctuating with the issues. “If there’s a major issue, a lot of people are going to show up. If there’s not a lot of big issues on the agenda – like I haven’t heard of anything real big going on this year – there might not be as many people.” On the other hand, sometimes unexpected things blow up into big debates. “I remember one year when I was a selectman we had the whole meeting in a half an hour one night. I remember another town meeting when I was a selectman when I thought it was going to be really quick and easy, and we had a 35-minute debate over a lawn tractor!”

We Are Social

One of the things that Dr. Ron Holland of Irasburg appreciates about town meeting is the collegiality of the town. “There are certain things in life that you need to respect and value; things that make life meaningful. Working for a civil society is satisfying – it’s over and above your personal wealth or something personal. It’s being part of a group. And we’re essentially social beings. People are social.”

Holland has acted as the Irasburg moderator for the past four years and he sees his role as one of facilitating a “healthy process” that maintains “the integrity of the town.”

Like Hutchins, he remembers some of the old characters who have passed on. “They were just wonderful to listen to, no matter what they were saying. … It was like a soup and you had a little more spice in it.”

Even in contentious meetings, there is value in gathering together to make a decision. “There’s certainly differences of opinion. But over and above the difference of opinion, they still value being citizens of the same place together. It’s one way to ameliorate the intensity of differences of opinion when you realize that it’s your neighbor and you’re talking face to face and he doesn’t look so bad and you don’t look so bad.”

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