Monday, March 2, 2009

Town Meeting: A Radical Tradition

Tomorrow is Town Meeting Day in Vermont. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1762 in this state, when the citizens of Bennington gathered to discuss and vote on community concerns. And it’s as close as America gets to real democracy. Thomas Jefferson called the New England town meeting "the wisest invention ever devised . . . for the perfect exercise of self-government.."

At least forty towns will weigh in this year on the future of Vermont Yankee, our state’s aging (and increasingly problem-plagued) nuclear plant. Three years ago, in 2006, Newfane and several other southern Vermont towns voted to impeach George Bush. In the past, agendas have included votes on the nuclear freeze, banning the production of land mines, and other issues that reach far beyond the municipal basics of school budgets and road repair.

Recently, the phrase “town meeting” has been co-opted by the media and political campaigns, used to describe stage-managed events that include hand-picked audiences and moderaters who keep dissent on the sidelines. Questions are as canned and predictable as the answers. “Town meeting” at this level has become just another televised exercise in political spin. That’s a perversion of our unruly New England tradition.

As a child, John Adams (our nation’s second president) attended town meetings in his hometown of Braintree, Massachusetts, where participants became so rowdy that a resolution had to be passed requiring participants not to stand up in the pews of the church where the people assembled. Now that’s grassroots!

Burlington, the city where I live, held its first town meeting in 1787. I’m not sure when the tradition died out. Now we go to the polls to elect a city council and mayor. There’s still a lot of room for citizen input here in the “People’s Republic,” but with over 40,000 residents, town meeting—where everyone has a voice and a vote--may no longer be practical. Yet we’ve lost something of value.

Suppose that at least once a year, neighbors of differing opinions (blue and red) , of all races, actually assembled in one room to talk about the issues that concerned them most, from taxes to foreign policy and healthcare? Imagine the conversations, the listening across ideological boundaries, the moments of learning and encounter. How different might America be if we had “Town Meeting Day” all across this land?

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