Editorial: Town Meeting Proves Its Usefulness

Yes, Town Meeting too often seems little more than a perfunctory exercise in endorsing town officials’ recommendations (although that may simply reflect that voters recognize competence when they see it). But there were several noteworthy instances last week when it was clear that it’s too soon to write off Town Meeting as a quaint ritual that has outlived its usefulness.

Judging by the 2013 edition in Vermont, the annual exercise in direct democracy still provides an effective mechanism for voters to assert their independent judgment and, in many cases, showcase their good sense. One wonders just how effectively the governed could make known their desires to those who govern were it not for the opportunity provided by Town Meeting to weigh in directly and decisively,

Communications infrastructure may be substandard in Norwich, but residents managed to deliver a clear message to the Selectboard and town manager: Abandon the plan to upgrade emergency communications by leasing town land to VTel, where it would build a tower that the company could use to provide Internet service and the town could use to upgrade radio communication for the police, fire and public works departments. That sentiment was delivered through overwhelming support for a petitioned warning article that called for borrowing money to erect the tower at the town’s expense.

The Selectboard’s case for working with VTel, a private telecommunications company, was reasonable: It would have allowed the town to meet federal regulations for emergency communications fairly quickly and inexpensively. But no matter how strongly the board believed in the wisdom of the plan — and as we noted previously, it had a right to proceed with what it had judged to be the best option, even after encountering opposition — board members could not adequately allay residents’ concerns about the site choice and VTel itself. After Tuesday’s vote, in which 67 percent of the voters signaled their opposition, it didn’t matter how reasonable the VTel plan was, townspeople didn’t want it.

In Hartford, voters surprised many by approving not one but two bonds. One will finance a joint project between the school district and town to undertake $9 million worth of recreational upgrades. The vote reflected not only that the projects would serve the recreational needs of the town, but also an appreciation for the constructive relationship that has developed between the town and school district. Also meeting the favor of voters was a $4.9 million renovation of the Municipal Building — a structure that’s worth saving but is also in dire need of work.

But Hartford voters were hardly pushovers. They rejected a charter change that would have given the Selectboard the option of imposing a 1 percent tax on meals, rooms and alcoholic beverages. In theory, it makes perfect sense for a town to consider tapping into its commercial base to generate revenue, if only to cover some of the municipal expenses associated with drawing visitors into town. In this case, however, the “local option tax” would have placed many in Hartford’s hospitality industry at a competitive disadvantage in return for a very unimpressive amount of revenue — an estimated $200,000. Didn’t make sense.

Also unconvincing was the case that Bradford officials made for placing a police officer at Oxbow Union High School — a proposal that gained some traction after the recent arrest of a high school teacher and the conviction of an elementary school teacher in connection with sex crimes against students in recent years. It wouldn’t have cost much money, at least for the first three years, but residents rightly decided it probably also wouldn’t have done much to address the crimes that were truly disturbing the community.

Meanwhile, Bethel residents disproved the notion that voters are afflicted with a short attention span. For the second year in a row, they removed one of the members of a Selectboard that had distinguished itself in the immediate aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene by battling with a group of volunteers who were trying to compensate for the board’s inadequate response to residents’ needs. The vote to replace Selectboard Chairman Neal Fox with Carl Russell was not only lopsided, but also involved a record number of participants. Townspeople also gave Fox a prolonged ovation after they had unseated him, displaying a recognition that, whatever his failings, he had also served the town for a long time in many roles.

In fact, Town Meeting’s capacity to provide a forum where people can disagree without demonizing each other offers a welcome contrast to other levels of government these days.