Town Meeting Day 2018

Town meeting day in Vermont is the first Tuesday in March. Town meeting in my town of Cambridge was better this year than last year, and much of the credit is due to the Community Engagement Team (CET) created by the selectboard following last year’s town meeting.

Several changes were made this year as a result of the CET’s recommendations. More microphones were used, and a podium was provided for the moderator. More and better food choices were offered. The meeting start time was changed from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. The old start time was appropriate when many citizens were dairy farmers and had morning chores to do, but few citizens are dairy farmers now.

The CET provided civic information with new material in the annual town report, a series of posts on Front Porch Forum in the weeks leading up to town meeting, and a new brochure on the chairs at town meeting.

For the first time, the meeting was live-streamed. You can watch the recorded video here. This is real democracy and local community engagement in action!

Changes were made to the warning for the meeting (i.e., the agenda). The goal was to simplify and clarify the warning, and also to put substantive issues before the voters. People are more willing to engage when they know that they can make a difference.

Some of the issues that were decided on Tuesday:

  • To increase the size of the selectboard from 3 to 5. Two additional selectboard members will be elected at town meeting next year.
  • To increase the budget to hire a town administrator. Cambridge has not previously had a town administrator, a position that many towns our size have long had.
  • To continue to fund the town’s share of a local commuter bus.

All of those issues generated considerable discussion. All of those issues passed by wide margins, but only after said discussion.

The discussion about the commuter bus illustrates, in my view, town meeting at its best. The discussion at last year’s town meeting was confused. The discussion this year was MUCH better. We had our facts straight. Citizens asked good questions and made good comments. Last year no one from Green Mountain Transit, the regional transit authority that operates the bus service, was present to answer questions. This year Chapin Kaynor, the chair of GMT’s board of commissioners, was present. He spoke and answered numerous questions. He also heard several thoughtful suggestions from citizens about how the bus service could be improved.

The vote was by show of hands and it was approved by such an overwhelming majority that there wasn’t even a count; there was no need. I personally voted against the bus because for me the level of ridership does not justify the expense. (See this post from last May for information about ridership and costs.) But I am greatly pleased with the process we went through to make a decision, and I fully support the outcome. This is how town meeting should work! You can’t get community engagement like this with just a ballot box. This level of community engagement only happens by having a true town meeting where people come together face-to-face, talk to and listen to each other, and make decisions.

The video shows the discussion and vote about the commuter bus from 2:12 to 2:37.

Contrast the community engagement on the commuter bus issue with the elementary school budget, which was voted on at the ballot box on Tuesday. Polls were open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. in the same room as town meeting (the gymnasium at the elementary school). There had been an informational meeting about the elementary school budget on Monday evening. A total of 4 members of the public attended that meeting: the town clerk, the spouse of a school board member, my wife and me. A total of 318 people voted at the ballot box on the elementary school budget. Yes, that was more than attended town meeting, but I don’t believe they were as engaged.

There were two paper ballot votes during town meeting this year, and the highest number of ballots cast in those two votes was 213. Last year there was one paper ballot vote and the total number of ballots cast was 216. So attendance was about the same as last year, but that’s not a bad result. Last year there was an open seat on the selectboard which generated considerable interest. There were no similar open positions this year to draw people to town meeting. I expect there will be good attendance next year when there are two new positions on the selectboard.

Another factor that adversely affected attendance this year was the weather. It was a beautiful day, and I know several farmers who did not attend or who left early. Not dairy farmers, but maple sugarmakers. The sap was running! It’s possible that a few people chose skiing over town meeting, too.

Not all of the CET’s recommendations for town meeting were implemented this year. Childcare was a top recommendation of the CET, but we were unable to resolve issues involving liability insurance. Beyond town meeting, the CET’s recommendations for an improved town website and a comprehensive guide to town government remain future projects.

The citizens of Cambridge should feel good about their town meeting this year. To people who were unable to attend: I encourage you to watch the video. And put next year’s town meeting on your calendar now – the first Tuesday in March. Town meeting day is such a strong tradition in Vermont that the first Tuesday in March is a state holiday (1 V.S.A. § 371).

(For an explanation of the image at the top of this post, see this.)

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The Enlightenment Is Working

Steven Pinker had an interesting essay in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal:

The Enlightenment Is Working

Dr. Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. The essay is adapted from his new book out today: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. Steven Pinker was referenced indirectly in my previous blog post: Holocaust Scholarship. He was the subject of the New York Times op-ed that I mentioned in that post: Social Media Is Making Us Dumber. Here’s Exhibit A. (Subscriptions probably required to access the NYT and WSJ links. Sorry.)

I’ve only read Dr. Pinker’s WSJ essay, not his book. The first paragraph of the essay:

For all their disagreements, the left and the right concur on one thing: The world is getting worse. Whether the decline is visible in inequality, racism and pollution, or in terrorism, crime and moral decay, both sides see profound failings in modernity and a deepening crisis in the West. They look back to various golden ages when America was great, blue-collar workers thrived in unionized jobs, and people found meaning in religion, family, community and nature.

Dr. Pinker says both the left and the right are wrong. He says that in every material respect our country and the world are vastly better than even 30 years ago, and that the comparison to 200 years ago is so overwhelmingly in favor of today as to be almost two different worlds. He cites many impressive statistics. He suggests that we would do well to recognize and appreciate the progress that has been made and continues to be made, and to let go of our pessimism.

I agree with Dr. Pinker, who goes on to say that the source of our good fortune is:

a continuation of a process set in motion by the Enlightenment in the late 18th century that has brought improvements in every measure of human flourishing.

This prompts a question. My education was in engineering and business, not liberal arts and certainly not history. Just what was the Enlightenment, anyway?

In my own mind, I used to confuse the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but they were two different periods of history. Following is a brief overview.

The Renaissance (French for “rebirth”) occurred mostly from the 1400s to the early 1600s. It was prominent in Italy, especially Florence. The Renaissance featured humanist themes in art, literature and philosophy. Two individuals especially come to mind:

The Renaissance may have been, in part, a rebirth from the Black Death, which hit all of Europe and especially Florence in 1348-1350. Another major event was the fall of Constantinople (current day Istanbul) in 1453. The Byzantine Empire (Christian) fell to the Ottoman Empire (Muslim). “The fall of Constantinople generated a wave of emigre Greek scholars bringing precious manuscripts in ancient Greek, many of which had fallen into obscurity in the West.” The humanist themes of the Renaissance were consistent with “the rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy, such as that of Protagoras, who said that ‘Man is the measure of all things.’” (quotes from Wikipedia)

Going back further in European history for additional perspective, the Roman Empire split in 395 AD into the Western Roman Empire headquartered in Rome and the Eastern Roman Empire headquartered in Constantinople. Rome was sacked in 410 and 455, and the Western Roman Empire is considered to have fallen by 476-480. The Eastern Roman Empire became known as the Byzantine Empire and continued for another millennium until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 noted above.

The religion of the Roman Empire is relevant to understanding this history. Ancient Rome had many gods, substantially adapted from ancient Greece. Zeus became Jupiter (or Jove), Athena became Minerva, Ares became Mars, Aphrodite became Venus, and so on. While the Romans persecuted the early Christians, the Roman Empire began to look favorably upon Christianity during the reign of Emperor Constantine (306-337 AD), and it became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380.

The period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Renaissance is sometimes called the Dark Ages or Middle Ages or Medieval Period of Western Europe. The Renaissance was a “rebirth” after that period.

The Enlightenment (also known as the “Age of Reason”) occurred later in Europe – in the 1700s. It was especially prominent in France and Great Britain, and also included Germany and the United States. Major themes of the Enlightenment included increasing reliance on science and reason, and increasing questioning of the authority of church and crown. The Enlightenment led to the American and French Revolutions. The painting at the top of this post is the Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States in 1787 by Howard Chandler Christy.

A few of the many individuals who contributed to the Enlightenment:

Major revolutions in science and religion occurred in the period leading up to the Enlightenment, and laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment. A few of the many people who contributed to the scientific revolution in this period:

Copernicus changed our conceptualization of the heavens from geocentric to heliocentric. Galileo, Descartes and Newton increased our mathematical understanding of nature.

The revolution in religion in the period leading up to the Enlightenment was known as the Reformation and it split Christianity into Catholics and Protestants. The Reformation is considered to have begun with the publication of the Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther in 1517 and ended in 1648 with the conclusion of the Thirty Years War (the Peace of Westphalia).

Many people of the Enlightenment did not consider themselves either Catholic or Protestant, but embraced a belief system called Deism. As with any philosophy or religion, there were many variations, but common themes included: belief in a deity greater than ourselves; belief that we cannot know much about this deity other than by observing nature and exercising our ability to reason; and skepticism of any organized religion that claims privileged knowledge of this deity.

In his Wall Street Journal essay, Steven Pinker wrote:

The Enlightenment is working. Our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking. They replaced superstition and magic with science. And they shifted their values from the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class or faith toward universal human flourishing.

The Enlightenment is working. Let us strive to keep it working.

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Holocaust Scholarship

The following recent news release is about Holocaust scholarship at the University of Vermont (UVM):

Two UVM scholars earn fellowships at U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

This is good news. Congratulations to UVM, Associate Professor Susanna Schrafstetter, and Professor Alan Steinweis.

Today, as much as ever, we need to understand how a civilized people can commit such a horrible atrocity as the Holocaust. The amount of anger, intolerance and hate in today’s world is alarming. Here is a recent example from Cornell University, a small example but one of many, especially on today’s college campuses. We need to control our emotions so that they don’t escalate into violence. It was small acts of violence that escalated into the Holocaust. And unfortunately social media makes the problem of controlling our emotions even harder today than it was 75-80 years ago during the Holocaust and World War II: Social Media Is Making Us Dumber. Here’s Exhibit A. (New York Times op-ed, subscription may be required, sorry)

It is perhaps not widely known that UVM was the long-time home of one of the world’s preeminent Holocaust scholars. He is not mentioned in the news release above. Dr. Raul Hilberg was a professor of political science at UVM from 1955 to 1991. From Wikipedia:

He was widely considered to be the world’s preeminent scholar of the Holocaust, and his three-volume, 1,273-page magnum opus, The Destruction of the European Jews, is regarded as a seminal study of the Nazi Final Solution.

In addition to scholars, sometimes novelists can help us understand our world. Two excellent novels of historical fiction about World War II are The Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk. The books were published in the 1970s. Two TV miniseries based on the books were produced in the 1980s.

Wouk, a Jew, wondered how a good and gracious God could allow such evil as the Holocaust. He answered that question in War and Remembrance, in a sermon by his character Aaron Jastrow in the Theresienstadt ghetto. The title of the sermon is “Heroes of the Iliad,” but Jastrow (and Wouk) did not find the answer in the Iliad. The title of the sermon was intentionally misleading, to avoid the attention of the German authorities.

Jastrow (and Wouk) found the answer in the Book of Job in the Old Testament. Wouk reprinted that sermon and further explained it in his non-fiction book The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion, published in 2010 (image above).

Wouk consulted with Hilberg at UVM when he (Wouk) was writing his WWII novels. Wouk attended and spoke at Hilberg’s retirement party in 1991. Raul Hilberg died in 2007 at age 81. Herman Wouk is still alive at age 102.

(This post draws on material from this earlier post.)

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Backcountry Recreation, Part 2

Over on my other blog, The Switchel Traveler, I wrote about the growing popularity of backcountry recreation in northern New England, especially in Vermont, and including in my home town of Cambridge. See Backcountry Recreation, Part 1.

This growing interest in backcountry recreation is exciting! It is exciting for Cambridge. And I am part of Cambridge town government. What are the implications for government?

My hope is: not much.

In Backcountry Recreation, Part 1, I linked to many organizations involved in backcountry recreation. In fact, I was surprised at how many organizations there are. None of the organizations mentioned in that blog post are part of government. They are all either for-profit or not-for-profit organizations, although some of them receive a portion of their revenue from government.

My vision of community is people doing things for themselves as much as possible, and asking their government to do things for them only when absolutely necessary. That is how the Long Trail was started. That is how most of the organizations mentioned in Backcountry Recreation, Part 1 were started. When people do as much for themselves as possible, not necessarily individually but in groups, it builds strong communities. When people ask government to do too much for them, it weakens communities. That is one answer to the question in the header: “What is a proper relationship between a free people and their government?”

Most of the organizations mentioned in Backcountry Recreation, Part 1 are not-for-profit organizations, and we certainly need them. But we also need for-profit enterprises. Without profits, there is no money for people to donate to not-for-profit organizations. Nor is there any money for people to pay taxes to run government. Government should encourage for-profit enterprises.

Consider the founding of the Green Mountain Club and the creation of the Long Trail. As a result of hiking several sections of the Long Trail with Nancy last year (details here), I became interested in the Proctor family. The Proctors were wealthy from profits earned in for-profit enterprises, and they were early benefactors of the Green Mountain Club. Without the Proctor family, the Green Mountain Club and Long Trail as we know them today may not have been created.

Here’s an interesting twist on that story. I blogged about the Proctor family and the Green Mountain Club here, here and here. In those posts, I referenced several books about the history of hiking and the Green Mountain Club. But there is one significant book that I did not mention: Forest and Crag: A History of Hiking, Trail Blazing, and Adventure in the Northeast Mountains, by Laura and Guy Waterman, an 888 page book published in 1989 with a second edition in 2003. This is truly a classic reference, and indeed Mark Bushnell referred to Forest and Crag in his article about hiking pioneer Alden Partridge. (See Backcountry Recreation, Part 1 for a link to Mark Bushnell’s article.) Why didn’t I mention Forest and Crag in my several posts about the Proctor family and the Green Mountain Club? Because there is not a single reference in that book to anyone named Proctor, even though there is a long chapter about the Long Trail and the Green Mountain Club.

Yes, I know there are bad actors in the for-profit sector, and some level of government regulation is needed. But in my experience, the overwhelming majority of people in the for-profit sector are good people and they deserve our appreciation. There are bad actors, as well as many good people, in the not-for-profit and government sectors, too.

And yes, I also know that not all not-for-profit organizations will thrive. Some will fail. There will be rivalries. That’s life. It’s best if they work those things out themselves, with as little government involvement as possible.

And finally, yes I know that government does have a role to play in some circumstances. We wouldn’t have many roads or parks without government involvement. But I prefer to let the private sector do as much as possible, and involve the government only when absolutely necessary. Not everything needs to be a road or a park.

The photo at the top of this post was taken yesterday at the West Farm in Cambridge.

Like many people, I enjoy and appreciate backcountry recreation. I do not wish for it to become government country.

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The Switchel Traveler

Introducing my new blog:

The Switchel Traveler

OK, it’s really an old blog that I am renaming today. Henceforth my two blogs are:

  • The Switchel Philosopher – this blog
  • The Switchel Traveler

“The Switchel Philosopher” is for adventures in the world of ideas. The tag line is:

What is a proper relationship between a free people and their government?

“The Switchel Traveler” is for travel adventures in the physical world. The tag line is:

There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

The tag line for “The Switchel Philosopher” is meant to serve as a muse for the blog, where a frequent topic is government and citizenship. The tag line for “The Switchel Traveler” is Hamlet’s reminder that we can never know everything. Philosophy alone is not enough; we also need to explore the world.

Why switchel? Because I like it! Also because switchel has a yin and yang aspect to it, and much of life is like that. Even my two blogs have a yin and yang aspect, with one about the physical world and the other about the world of ideas.

Switchel is a non-alcoholic beverage dating back to Colonial times. My mother made switchel for our family when I was growing up on the farm, and we drank a lot of it in the hayfield.

The main ingredients in switchel are sugar, vinegar, ginger and water. The sweet and sour of sugar and vinegar are the yin and yang of switchel. In my part of the world (Vermont), the sugar is usually maple syrup and the vinegar is almost always apple cider vinegar. But variations are allowed. Honey and pomegranate vinegar are also good. Sometimes additional ingredients are added such as lemon juice (or even rum!). Today, commercial versions of switchel are available, for example Vermont Switchel and Up Mountain Switchel.

Oh, another thing about switchel. The ginger tends to settle out, so you have to shake it before drinking. Sometimes life is like that, too.

My blogging history

“The Switchel Philosopher” – this blog – is my most recent blog. I started it in February 2017, after retiring in December 2016. It has always been about adventures in the world of ideas, including government and citizenship. Being elected to the town selectboard in March 2017 has contributed to some of the themes on this blog.

“The Switchel Traveler” is an older blog and has had two previous names. I started that blog in 2007 as “George’s Home Blog” to distinguish it from my “work blog” which I also started in 2007. After retiring, the work/home distinction was not applicable any more, and I renamed it to “George’s Other Blog” to distinguish it from “The Switchel Philosopher.” Today I am renaming it again, this time to “The Switchel Traveler” to more clearly indicate how my two personal blogs complement each other.

Post retirement, my two personal blogs have different and distinctive themes:

  • The Switchel Philosopher – adventures in the world of ideas
  • The Switchel Traveler – travel adventures in the physical world

Prior to retirement, I blogged about both themes on both my “work blog” and my “home blog.” Examples of both themes on my “work blog” included Trip to China and Values. My “home blog” has always included travel adventures. Prior to retirement it also included adventures in the world of ideas, some of which are captured by the labels culture, money, reality and slow.

There are also some earlier adventures in the world of ideas on “George’s VAFPDB Blog.” I published ten posts there in 2012-13 before resigning from the Vermont Agricultural and Forest Products Development Board.

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Blog Recap 2017

I started this blog in February 2017 after retiring in December 2016. Below is a summary of my 2017 posts here.

Posts to introduce the blog:

Early in the year I visited the Vermont Legislature and blogged about a few things:

My first post on this blog (“Welcome to the Switchel Philosopher”) was on 2/08/17. I was approached on 2/13/17 about running for selectboard in my town of Cambridge, Vermont. I had not previously considered that. I thought about it, decided on 2/21/17 to run, and was elected at town meeting on 3/07/17:

Being involved in local government has given me a few things to blog about! These two posts set the stage:

As a result of lively discussions at town meeting, the selectboard created a Community Engagement Team which I wrote several posts about:

I blogged about a few of the many subjects that I encountered in local government:

I discussed how I think about the categories of public life:

My sister Beth and I did presentations for the Cambridge and Westford Historical Societies about the Cloverdale neighborhood, based on a book that our father and a cousin had written. This was a fascinating exercise:

Another presentation I did was for Leadership Lamoille about nonprofit organizations:

A couple of posts attempted humor:

And finally I wrote miscellaneous posts on various topics that I found interesting, including thoughts about my career in the Farm Credit System:

I write on two blogs. This blog, The Switchel Philosopher, is for adventures in the world of ideas. My other blog, The Switchel Traveler, is for travel adventures in the physical world. See my About page for more information about switchel, me, my two blogs, and my blogging history.

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CET Recommendations – Town Administrator

This is the fourth post in a series of four posts about the report of the Community Engagement Team (CET) to the selectboard on November 20. A list of the posts in this series is at the bottom of this post. Please read the first post in this series for context and a link to the CET’s full report.

This post is about a town administrator.

The selectboard has been discussing the need for a town administrator as an addition to the town office staff. On October 24, there was a special selectboard meeting to discuss this idea, with representatives attending from Johnson and Underhill – both of which have town administrators. Several members of the public attended that meeting. The minutes of that meeting are here.

The CET concurs with the concept of adding a town administrator to town government. The CET believes that many of the issues raised by voters at town meeting and in the survey would be ameliorated by adding a town administrator.

A town administrator would be a full time person in the town office, and a second point of contact for citizens to approach with questions, suggestions or problems. A town administrator would be a resource for the selectboard, which is part time and generally not in the town office. A town administrator would be a point of coordination between the various town boards, commissions and committees. A town administrator could help with the education and communication suggestions in the previous post.

A town administrator would clearly have to work well with Town Clerk/Treasurer Mark Schilling, who is currently the main point of contact for citizens. All towns have town clerks and treasurers, who have duties defined in state law. Many towns, such as Johnson and Underhill, also have town administrators whose duties are defined by the selectboard. In Cambridge, as in most towns, the town clerk/treasurer is an elected official and does not report to the selectboard. A town administrator would be a hired employee who would report to the selectboard.

The administrative duties imposed on towns are continually increasing. For example, a considerable amount of funding is through grants, which require increasing amounts of paperwork both in applying for the grants and in administering them once received. For another example, Act 64 in 2015 (regarding water quality) requires municipalities to apply for and comply with a Municipal Roads General Permit starting in 2018. This will require considerable administrative work that did not exist before.

The following recent articles in the News & Citizen may be of interest:

Cambridge, swamped, talks about hiring help – 11/22/17

Wolcott board to consider adding town administrator – 9/28/17

In the second article, the following is attributed to the Wolcott town clerk, who is retiring soon after 30 years:

[I]t’s time to wean the [select]board off the “idea that the town clerk is their secretary.”

The CET recommends that an article be placed in the warning for town meeting regarding the addition of a town administrator. Adding a town administrator does not require voter approval, other than the usual voter approval of the budget, but the CET believes this is a major change for the town and warrants voter discussion and consideration. The CET hopes that the article will be approved.

The CET was unanimous in supporting the idea of a town administrator, but it was not unanimous in recommending a separate article in the warning. A minority of the CET felt that including the cost of a town administrator in the budget was sufficient.

I am a strong supporter of the idea of a town administrator, for all of the reasons stated above, and I support including a separate article in the warning. I welcome your views. Please feel free to post comments here. (Unless you are a member of the selectboard, in which case–per Vermont’s open meeting law–we can discuss town affairs only in properly warned public meetings.)

This is part of a series of four related blog posts:

1. Community Engagement Team Report

2. CET Recommendations – Assigned Questions

3. CET Recommendations – Town Meeting

4. CET Recommendations – Town Administrator (this post)

Please read the first post in this series for context and a link to the CET’s full report. My posts are my own views, and do not necessarily represent the views of either the CET or the selectboard.

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