Black Holes and Democracy
October 1, 2021
Before reading this column, examine these two definitions and then take the test.
What is an Executive Session? “Part of a public meeting from which the public is excluded.” (Vermont Secretary of State)
What is a Black Hole? “A place in space where gravity pulls so much that even light cannot get out. … This can happen when a star is dying.” (NASA)
TEST: Select all that apply.
Black holes exist in outer space
Executive sessions are frequently used by the Essex Selectboard
Both keep light from getting out
All of the above
(Answer found below)
With Essex Junction hurtling toward a November vote to separate from Essex Town, the Selectboard has largely frozen the public out of its deliberations over the Separation issue.
Instead of holding a creative, public dialogue with citizens about the possibility of a new Town of Essex without the village, the board has retreated, shutting off the microphones at 81 Main, turning out the lights and heading upstairs for closed door conversations among themselves, the town attorney and selected staff. As Charlie Rich once sang, “Oh, no one knows what goes on behind closed doors.”
Beginning June 7, 2021 — as Separation discussions were ramping up — the SB held eleven meetings, on its own or jointly with the Village Trustees. Ten out of those eleven meetings concluded with the board sequestered in executive sessions. At its August 2nd session, the board spent about as much time meeting in secret — two hours — as it did in public.
This kind of secrecy is not exactly what the Vermont Constitution prescribes. In particular, Article 6, one of the most heralded sections of that constitution, reads: “That all power being originally inherent in and co[n]sequently derived from the people, therefore, all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants; and at all times, in a legal way, accountable to them.”
Bruce S. Post, a former Selectboard member, often writes and lectures on Vermont environmental history.
The late philosopher Mortimer Adler reminded Americans “that citizenship is the primary political office under a constitutional government. In a republic, the citizens are the ruling class. They are the permanent and principal rulers. All other offices that are set up by the constitution are secondary.”
Why, then, do I feel like a second-class citizen and not a ruler?
One reason: executive (read secret) sessions.
Is this normal? It shouldn’t be. Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos has admonished: “Remember that executive sessions should only be used for extraordinary circumstances … Abusing the law of executive session is offensive to the purpose of open meetings. Boards should close their meetings rarely.” Ten out of the last eleven meetings ain’t rare.
Vermonters tend to believe their myths; they imagine a Norman Rockwell world of idealized images that represent the best of what we could be but obscure the reality of what we have become. One of those myths is embodied in Rockwell’s painting of a Town Meeting in Arlington, where he lived. One individual stands up to make a point while everyone else turns to listen. Power to the people.
We can improve our government.
We can strive for the ideal that our Vermont Constitution consecrates and Mortimer Adler enshrines: the citizen as the primary ruler of our government.
So long as the SB keeps meeting in executive sessions, though, our democracy is slowly, inexorably being sucked into a black hole from which no light escapes.
Answer to the test: All of the above