Town Meeting is on the Ballot
November 3rd Election Preview
by Irene Wrenner
October 2, 2020
Your November ballot contains an epic local government question, in the last section on side two. Look closely, so you don’t miss it; it’s not highlighted like the other sections:
A prevailing YES vote to change from a floor vote to a ballot would end the 200-year-old in-person Town Meeting tradition, in favor of the expediency and access that an Australian ballot provides.
Essex wouldn’t be the first large Vermont town to make this move. In fact, we’re one of the holdouts.
While smaller towns see robust turnouts and often day-long discussions on a variety of matters, Essex long ago moved to an evening meeting format, in which the budget is the main event.
In all cases, the Town Meeting tradition has provided a unique opportunity for each attending citizen to act as a legislator.
In other words, any registered voter in attendance can offer a motion to increase or decrease the budget total with the support of their fellow residents.
Along the way, questions and comments yield a unique dialogue between and among taxpayers and elected officials that allows new information to inform the final vote, which happens that same night.
Moving to Australian ballot would drop the “gold standard” of citizen participation, but it would allow thousands, rather than hundreds, to cast votes (in person or by mail) for or against a budget determined solely by officials.
If that budget passes, all’s well. If it fails, officials must determine why, and then conduct re-votes until a revised budget passes.
Subsequent re-vote elections cost money and time that Town Meeting does not.
Nevertheless, the rich tradition of Town Meeting may have run its course in Essex. The switch to Australian ballot received overwhelming support in a survey conducted last summer by a consultant on behalf of the joint boards.
If it’s true that “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” take a few minutes to learn from the expert on Town Meetings.
Vermont historian Frank Bryan has studied direct democracy for 40 years and written two books about it: Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works and All Those in Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community.
Listen to excerpts from his February interview at the University of Vermont's Center for Research on Vermont.
Essex Junction voters will also decide on whether to change the Village Annual Meeting format via a separate ballot.