is Town Meeting Day
According to Vermont law, "A meeting
of legal voters of each town shall be held annually
on the first Tuesday of March for the election
of officers and the transaction of other business."
Town meeting is the closest we
can come to direct democracy. As opposed to our
state and federal legislature where we elect someone
to represent us, each citizen represents themselves
at Town Meeting. Each individual can bring an
issue to the attention of the community, they
can question or challenge a budget item and they
decide, by voting, who will work for them in local
Electing local officials is a
major responsibility. These officials who make
up our local government represent the level of
government that you come into contact with most
often. Local government provides basic on-going
services like funding public schools; maintaining
roads, and police and fire protection.
With guidance from the community,
local officials address current issues like repairing
a bridge, building a new police station, addressing
the noise level of car radios or building a skateboard
park. Communities may also use Town Meeting to
look at issues that affect the future such as
keeping businesses in the downtown areas or proposals
for new development.
Town Meeting Day gives every
citizen the opportunity to participate in the
debate over the issues that affect the community
in which they live. It is the most direct form
of democracy we have.
The history of Town Meeting Day
reflects much of what we value in democracy. In
the late 1700's, Vermont was being settled by
people seeking independence and more control of
their own lives. Early settlers of Vermont shared
a love of freedom, independence and the beautiful
mountain land they called home. They realized
that in addition to these shared values, they
all had a stake in building and maintaining their
Every few weeks, the people would
gather in town to discuss how they would build
and maintain their community. The issues in those
days were likely similar to the issues of today.
Citizens were looking for a place to buy, sell
or trade goods, to have protection from criminals
who would steal, cheat or cause physical harm,
they may have looked for a public water system
to prevent disease and for emergency use. Since
1762, this has been recognized as Town Meeting
In the early days, men over the
age of 21 gathered weekly or monthly to discuss
town business. At that point they did not have
elected officials. However, as the needs of the
town grew, the townsmen elected representatives
to handle the town's business. These men where
known as Selectmen. As they took on the responsibilities
of running the town, the time between town meetings
increased. Eventually town meetings became an
annual event as we know it today. The role of
citizens has changed from directly making and
implementing decisions to overseeing the work
of those elected or hired to do the town's business.
Local government at the town
level is unique, and seen in its pure form in
New England. Without a county government, local
government plays a major role in Vermont's system
of government. To this day, Vermont remains unique
in its heavy reliance on local government.
Happens on Town Meeting Day
The business conducted at Town
Meetings has changed little over 200 years. First
and foremost Town Meeting is unique to each town.
Most have Town Meeting on the first Tuesday in
March, though a provision in Vermont statutes
allows communities to select a different day,
and some do.
Regardless of when the meeting
is held, each community must have a warning of
the meeting to come. A warning is a notice 30
to 40 days before the meeting. This notice must
include the date, time, location and the business
that will be done at the meeting. This notice
must be posted at specific places in each community
and must also run in the newspaper at least five
days before the meeting.
Each town elects a moderator
who will oversee the Town Meeting. In addition
to electing the Moderator for the next Town Meeting,
most towns also elect a town clerk, treasurer,
selectman, lister and auditor. Elected positions
vary from town to town. In larger communities,
they may also elect a mayor, city councilors or
school board members.
In addition to electing local
officials, most towns review and approve the town's
finances and budget. The budget usually provides
for school funding, police and fire protection,
local government employee salaries, road maintenance
and construction projects. The community may choose
to provide funding for other services like a youth
center, funding for a homeless shelter or transportation
for the elderly. Some communities also vote on
the school budget at this time.
The budget helps determine what
taxes will be paid to provide for these services.
Most of the funds come from a tax on property,
the level of which is determined by the budget
approved by the community.
The final area of business at
Town Meeting is other issues facing the community,
state or nation. Most of the time the issues are
local, like the construction of a new building
or the purchase of park land. In some cases, like
the civil unions issue, communities will openly
discuss issues and cast ballots to show their
views on issues facing the state. Again, the issues
addressed are unique to the challenges and opportunities
present for each community.
Voting is the culmination of Town
Meeting Day activities. Since the controversy
in Florida over the method of casting a ballot,
more people are paying attention to how we actually
go about voting. In Vermont, the voting procedures
are unique to each community and include a blend
of the old fashion ways mixed with a bit of modern
In some communities, Town Meeting
day votes are still done by voice. The oldest
means of voting involves the moderator asking
those in favor to voice an "Aye" and those against
voice a "Nay" for each item of business. If there
is some question about the outcome of a specific
voice vote, the moderator may ask for a show of
hands to count the vote total. Paper ballots counted
by hand are also used.
Each method described above assumes
the traditional Town Meeting format that involves
debate and discussion before voting. In many Vermont
communities, the Australian ballot is used. In
this method, a standard ballot is printed and
voters may come in at any time during voting hours
to cast their ballot. In this method, there is
no debate and discussion, or if so it does not
usually occur the day of the vote.
Australian ballots bring up some
questions about the purpose of Town Meeting Day.
The benefit of this method is that it takes less
time and therefore may make it easier for citizens
to vote. However, this method removes the debate
and discussion element that is the backbone of
Town Meeting. Experts would debate the importance
of taking away the opportunity to share ideas
and opinions before voting on the issues.
Ballots are tallied by hand count
or optical scanners. In either case, Vermont has
a low incidence of spoiled ballots. As for the
now famous butterfly ballots of Florida, Vermont
stopped using those 15 years ago.
Future of Town Meeting Day
Increasingly, we find debate about
the value and importance of Town Meeting Day.
How important is Town Meeting Day? Well, just
how important is it for you to have a say in the
affairs of your town? How much do you value this
tradition of direct democracy? Letting go of Town
Meeting day is giving up more control over the
things that have a direct, and sometimes daily
affect on our lives. And it means giving up a
tradition that sets us apart from other states
and shapes who we are. Keeping Town Meeting alive
is preserving democracy and a unique part of our
character for the next generation. Bring your
family, bring your neighbors, bring your community
together this Town Meeting Day.
Are The People In Your Local Government
While positions in local government
can vary from town to town, here are some of the
most common positions in town government.
Moderator - One of the
most important people on town meeting day as his/her
job is to oversee the Town Meeting. The Moderator
is elected on Town Meeting Day to oversee the
next year's Town Meeting.
Town Clerk - Clerks are
the central record keepers for each town. In addition
to administering and reporting the results of
local and state elections, clerks also keep track
of deeds, mortgages, marriage licenses, births
and deaths. They may also collect certain fees
and bills owed to the town.
Selectman - Elected by
the townspeople to oversee the town's business
and implementing decisions made at Town Meeting.
Treasurer - Oversees
the town finances, including sources of income
and payment of bills.
Auditor - Reviews town
financial record and prepares the Town Report,
which presents the town's financial information
for its citizens.
Listers - Each town elects
three people to keep a list of property in the
community and the value of each for the purpose
of assessing taxes. This is important because
taxes on that property are the primary source
of funds for local government and schools.
Town Manager - Some towns
choose to hire an individual to oversee the administrative
needs of the town. A town manager is hired by
and works with the Selectmen. They implement the
policy decisions of the Selectmen and those made
at Town Meeting.
- Who Are The People In Your Neighborhood
Since each community in Vermont
is unique, take the time to learn about your local
- List the positions in your
town government and identify if they are elected,
hired or appointed.
- Now, list the individual who
currently holds each office.
- Finally, select one office
or officeholder you find interesting and do
some research. What do they do, how long have
they been in office, what is their favorite
part of their job?
- Share your research with your
classmates at school and your family at home.
- Council-Manager system is the
only system of government unique to the United
States - the rest were borrowed from other nations
- There are 252 towns and cities
in Vermont; 243 are towns and 9 are cities.
- Town Meeting Day often falls
on the day Vermont entered the Union.
Search For The Elements Of Town Meetings
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