Yesterday was my second Town Meeting Day in Vermont, and it passed companionably and uneventfully. I attended two Town Meetings yesterday—the Town where I live and the largest Town in the county—and spent my time as others did, chatting, laughing, and comparing knitting. I am pleased that I learned just yesterday how to do double knitting and how to make mittens with thumbs.
The experience was different from last year’s introduction. Last year, I just soaked up the atmosphere of this amazing tradition, a pure democratic process in which everything that needs the stamp of voter approval is put forth, discussed, and voted by the people who attend. I was impressed by the skills of moderators, the broad acceptance and observation of Robert’s Rules of Order, and the overwhelming courtesy of all participants, even those who got excited about their particular concerns. This year, I was able to sit back and observe more clearly that in Town Meeting, like any other effectively managed meeting, most of the hard work and decisions have already been structured for the voters, making the meeting itself almost a formality. Almost.
Since the tiny non-profit I represent receives funding appropriations from nine area towns, I go to Town Meeting in the mostly unrealistic fear that my organization’s funding may be questioned, or worse, that my neighbors may start pelting me with rotten vegetables that they have been hoarding just for this occasion. Truly, Vermonters are more polite and reserved than that, but you never really know what public outburst of some private disappointment may surface unexpectedly. Over the coming weeks, I will hear if appropriations in the other seven towns survived, but for now, like my neighbors, I can turn my attention to starting seeds and looking to spring. Town Meeting Day is the traditional day to start seeds indoors.
I have also come to see Town Meeting Day as useful allegory for decision-making. In my ongoing struggle to establish boundaries for myself or for other people who seem heck-bent on intruding on mine, Town Meeting Day provides a happy model. To the person who has strong opinions about how I run my personal life, I say, “That’s very interesting. You are of course entitled to your opinion, but since you are not a resident of the Town of Karen, you do not have a vote.” The sputtered, “But-but-but…you can’t do that!” is countered with a calm, “Thank you for your input.”
It also works as I try to change how I make my own decisions. You see, lots of people have input into the decisions that are made at Town Meeting, but the final decisions are made only by the people who show up. There were many years in my life during which the Kid and the Grown-up struggled over decisions. The Kid would whine, “But I want to play more,” while the Grown-up overruled with, “First, we pay the bills.” The Kid would then compromise by getting the Grown-up to agree to have ice cream for dinner. It was the Kid who got the Grown-up to agree to have a house and a dog. It was the Grown-up who exulted in the delight of intellectual stimulation of work and tamped down looming health issues. The Body’s requirements, whether for rest or exercise or relief of stress, were simply ignored. Now that the Body shows up for Town Meeting, the overall decisions are better. Proposals to have ice cream for dinner are roundly voted down by both the Grown-up and the Body, but the Body and the Kid gang up on the Grown-up (who can be an old grouch) and get more physical activity into the mix. We are all happier in this new system. We are all happier in Vermont.