The Town Moderator Speaks
Yesterday was Town Meeting Day in Vermont, and I’m Town Moderator in Newfane. As I have been doing for the last decade, I take care to set the tone with my opening remarks. What follows is an abbreviated version of this year’s Civic Homily.
WHAT SHE SAID
It’s wonderful to welcome new attendees, and it’s always good to see the Newfane citizens who make it a priority to attend Town Meeting.
You are today’s legislators.
Your votes will determine town budget and policy for the ensuing year. But we must be aware that those gathered here today represent only a small fraction of Newfane’s electorate.
Last year, this body passed a non-binding resolution to become an Open and Accepting Community that would welcome and protect the rights of immigrants and refugees. Later in the morning, we’ll hear a report from the Open and Accepting Town Committee.
I’m wondering if and what this group would consider doing to make our Town Meeting a welcoming Town Meeting. I wonder if there are barriers to participation we can identify and perhaps remedy.
In the ten years I’ve been moderating this meeting, I’ve witnessed our local authority dwindle and regional and state authority grow.
This is a fact, not an opinion.
It leaves me wondering if there are civic issues other than the town budget and tax collection that we might want to discuss and even to act on.
We all came together in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, which was the splendid consequence of that natural disaster. Can we find ways to come together without the catalyst of an obvious tragedy?
Dwindling attendance at Town Meeting is a civic tragedy eroding not just our town, but towns all over Vermont. It’s an issue we discuss at the annual Moderator Training Workshop you send me to.
There’s some comfort in knowing we’re not alone.
There’s also hope.
Some towns are bucking this trend by changing when they hold Town Meeting, by including a community meal before, during or after Town Meeting, and by providing childcare, to name a few initiatives.
Perhaps we could start with each of you: Can you each commit to inviting and bringing with you someone who has never been or who has stopped coming when we meet in Williamsville Hall on the first Tuesday in March, 2019?
If others of you have this same concern that I have about local, civic engagement, let’s have a discussion and brainstorm ways to reinvigorate our Town Meeting by making it more inclusive.
Thanks for listening to me.
This is the only opinion I’ll express today that is not related to procedure.
Because it’s been a year since we last met, let me remind you of a few of those procedures. This is your meeting; my job is to facilitate it.
[Here is where I review the most salient of Roberts (many) Rules of Order.]
[Every year, I end with some form of the same appeal for civility, which follows.]
Please listen closely to each other. We’re living at a time of rancorous and uncivil discourse. But we’re Vermonters, with a long history of bucking national trends, from being the first state to prohibit slavery in our state’s constitution; the only state to declare war on Germany before Pearl Harbor; and the first state to legally recognize same sex unions. As the historical record shows, these actions were all the result of rigorous debate.
Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times recently wrote, “It should be possible both to believe deeply in the rightness of one’s own cause and to hear out the other side. Civility is not a sign of weakness, but of civilization.”
As always: Let us be passionate in our beliefs and polite their expression.
Vital statistics for the last year begin on page 137 of the Town Report. This year, there are eight deaths reported, and eight births. We’re holding steady. Please keep in mind that we’re able to convene today because of all those who have come before us, and what we do today will affect those who come after.
Finally, there are lots of ways to serve the town: attending Town Meeting, volunteering on committees, working for the town and running for office. This year’s Town Report is dedicated to Todd Lawley, a man who’s done all of the above.
NOTE TO ANY VERMONT VOTERS READING THIS POST
Do you have ideas about how to make Town Meeting more welcoming and inclusive? If so, please share them, either in the comment space below or in a private message.
I’m especially interested to hear from those who don’t attend town meeting. Why not? What would make it more likely that you would attend?
For those who wish to watch a video of this year’s Town Meeting, click here.
As always, thanks for reading.
Dana Grossman says
Beautifully put, Deb! No suggestions to pull us back from this brink we seem to be teetering on as a society, but more commentary along the lines of yours surely can’t hurt.
Deborah Lee Luskin says
Thanks for your comment. I hope commentary will lead to action . . .
Jane Olmstead says
Some towns make town meeting at night. Vernon meets both Monday and Tuesday nights. This allows more people to attend. Not everyone can leave work for town meeting.
Deborah Lee Luskin says
Yes, changing the time/date so that more working people can attend without forfeiting a day’s pay has been successful in increasing TM participations in several Vermont towns.
All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility.
Deborah Lee Luskin says
This is true both at Town Meeting and in the blogosphere – and throughout cyberspace. I wonder if there’s any place for incivility. Thanks for commenting.