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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CET Recommendations – Town Meeting

This is the third 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 town meeting. Other posts in this series also include recommendations that pertain to town meeting. This post is about additional recommendations pertaining to town meeting. It is the longest post in my series of four posts about the CET’s report. Even so, my comments below are only a summary; please see the CET’s full report for details. The CET had a lot to say about town meeting.

Childcare

The CET recommends that childcare be provided at town meeting. This was a significant finding from the survey. Johnson recently began providing childcare at their town meeting, with good results, and could serve as a model. The CET’s report provides several options for consideration.

Food and music

The CET recommends providing food and music before the beginning of town meeting, to make the event more inviting and to encourage citizens to come early and mingle. Again, Johnson recently started this, and could serve as a model.

Audio and video

The CET recommends more microphones, a total of five: one for the moderator; an additional microphone on the stage to be shared by other town officials; two roving microphones on the floor; and a fixed microphone on a stand in the center of the floor. There were only two microphones at the 2017 town meeting, one for the stage and one roving microphone for the floor. This was not adequate. The CET recommends that the two roving microphones be carried by both Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, not just Boy Scouts. Town Moderator Jerry Cole suggested adding a fixed microphone, and the CET concurs. Citizens who feel they aren’t being recognized by the moderator or the carriers of the roving microphones would have the option to line up at the fixed microphone where they would be readily seen by the moderator.

The CET recommends that town meeting be videoed for later playback, and livestreamed if possible.

Warnings

In 2017 for the first time, town meeting was broken into two portions: town meeting and town school district meeting. This is appropriate, and will continue. The CET recommends two separate warnings. The CET recommends that town meeting come first, followed by the town school district meeting. The articles that will likely generate the most discussion are in town meeting.

The CET recognizes the importance of well-constructed warnings. The CET appreciates the input of Town Moderator Jerry Cole in the discussions about the warnings. Note that the CET’s recommendations about the warning for town meeting are submitted to the selectboard for consideration, while recommendations about the warning for the town school district meeting are submitted to the school board for Cambridge Elementary School for consideration.

The CET recognizes that what brings people to town meeting are substantive issues to decide. There will be a number of substantive issues at the 2018 town meeting. The selectboard will likely put several money issues in the warning: the commuter bus (again); the sidewalks (again, the amount approved last year was not sufficient); and the Bartlett Hill/Pumpkin Harbor Road project (with cost estimates from the engineer). The CET is recommending two substantive additions to the warning: increasing the size of the selectboard from three to five (see previous post); and adding a town administrator (see next post). There will be plenty to talk about.

The CET has other minor recommendations for changes to the warnings that are detailed in its report to the selectboard.

In Vermont there is a process for citizens to petition for articles to be added to the warning. The petition must be signed by at least 5% of the voters in the town, and it must be filed with the town clerk not less than 47 days before town meeting. The deadline for the 2018 town meeting is Thursday, January 18, 2018. See 17 V.S.A. § 2642(a)(3) and the “Local Petitions” page on the Secretary of State’s website for more information.

Education and Communication

The CET survey showed that Front Porch Forum is the leading source of information for citizens about town issues. Especially since town meeting, Town Clerk/Treasurer Mark Schilling has made good use of Front Porch Forum to communicate to citizens about town government. This is an excellent improvement.

Even so, the CET recommends that more be done to communicate to voters how town meeting and town government work. Following is a summary of the CET’s ideas; see the report for details.

The summary of parliamentary procedures in the town report could be improved.

The CET recommends that this 2-page document about town meeting, from the Vermont Institute for Government, be included in the town report.

The CET recommends a Front Porch Forum series in the days/weeks before town meeting: “Ten Things to Know about Town Meeting.”

The CET recommends education about town meeting for school children.

The town’s website has much useful information, but it is dated and not easy to use. Mark Schilling plans to include funds in the town’s 2018 budget to upgrade the website, and the CET concurs. My personal hope is that when the town’s website is upgraded, it can be moved from the “.org” domain to the “.gov” domain as I discussed here and here.

The CET recommends that the town create a “policy and service guide” similar to the Middlesex Operator’s Manual that Susan Clark shared with us. A copy of the Middlesex Operator’s Manual is in the town office if you wish to look at it. Regretfully, it does not exist as a single PDF document that I can link to. Pieces of it are in various places on the Town of Middlesex website. There is, however, a similar document, inspired by the Middlesex Operator’s Manual, available online as a single PDF file: the Tinmouth Operator’s Manual.

Some of these recommendations concerning education and communication would benefit from additional resources. See the next post about a town administrator.

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 (this post)

4. CET Recommendations – Town Administrator

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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CET Recommendations – Assigned Questions

This is the second 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 the assigned questions in the CET’s mission statement.

Should town meeting be held on a different day of the week or different time of day or both?

The CET recommends that town meeting continue to be held on the same day as always, the first Tuesday in March. This is the traditional day for town meeting in Vermont. It is a state holiday (1 V.S.A. § 371). Cambridge schools are on vacation. Employees in Vermont have the right to take unpaid leave for town meeting (21 V.S.A. § 472b). The CET was persuaded by the research of Susan Clark and Frank Bryan that changing the day of town meeting does not increase attendance, and may decrease attendance.

Town meeting in Cambridge has traditionally started at 10:00 AM. The CET recommends that this be changed to 9:00 AM. The CET feels that some citizens would take a half-day off from work, but not a full day. There is a noted drop in attendance after lunch, anyway, and starting earlier would facilitate participation by more people in more of the business of the town.

These recommendations were unanimous.

Should issues that are currently decided by a vote in town meeting (following an opportunity for discussion) instead be decided by Australian ballot?

The CET does not recommend that any issues currently decided by floor vote be changed to Australian ballot. While this position was not unanimous, a majority of the CET was persuaded by the views of Susan Clark and Frank Bryan that Australian balloting decreases the quality of local democracy. Floor votes allow for discussion, the opportunity to change others’ minds, and amendments. Towns that have changed to Australian balloting have seen decreased attendance at town meeting. Susan Clark and Frank Bryan argue that what brings people to town meeting, and engage in discussions with their neighbors, is having substantive issues to decide in floor votes.

There is one article currently decided by Australian ballot – the Cambridge Elementary School budget. This was decided by floor vote until it was changed to Australian ballot at the 2007 town meeting. The CET considered recommending an article be placed in the warning for citizens to vote on possibly changing this back to a floor vote, but decided not to make such a recommendation.

Should the selectboard be increased from three to five persons?

The CET recommends that an article be placed in the warning for citizens to vote on increasing the size of the selectboard from three to five persons.

The CET was not unanimous on this issue, but a majority of the CET felt that it should be in the warning for voters to decide. The CET did not take a position on whether or not it hopes that the article will pass.

This was considered at the 2006 town meeting; it did not pass.

Should the CET be established as a long-term committee and reconsider its mission following the issuance of its report?

The CET recommends that it continue as an informal workgroup, not as a formal town committee. People could come and go on the workgroup as they wish, and work on whatever initiatives they wish. The selectboard would not have to worry about designating committee members, and the workgroup would not have to worry about quorum requirements. The workgroup could submit recommendations to the selectboard at any time. This is the model followed in Middlesex, which has a Town Meeting Solutions Committee that Susan Clark is on.

In general, what can the town do to reduce barriers to and facilitate more engagement by all citizens in substantive town affairs and town meetings?

See the next two blog posts about town meeting and a town administrator.

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

1. Community Engagement Team Report

2. CET Recommendations – Assigned Questions (this post)

3. CET Recommendations – Town Meeting

4. CET Recommendations – Town Administrator

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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Community Engagement Team Report

The Community Engagement Team (CET) in my town of Cambridge, Vermont, presented its report to the selectboard at the board’s regular meeting on November 20. The CET’s report is on the town’s website here.

In this post, I review the CET’s mission and how they went about their work.

In the next three posts (links below), I summarize and discuss the CET’s recommendations.

The selectboard created the seven-member CET on April 3, 2017, as a result of lively discussions and a nonbinding resolution at town meeting on March 7. (I am on both the selectboard and the CET.) The CET’s mission was to conduct research and issue recommendations on the following specific questions:

    • Should town meeting be held on a different day of the week or different time of day or both?
    • Should issues that are currently decided by a vote in town meeting (following an opportunity for discussion) instead be decided by Australian ballot?
    • Should the selectboard be increased from three to five persons?
    • Should the CET be established as a long-term committee and reconsider its mission following the issuance of its report?

The CET was not limited to those questions if it wished to make additional recommendations. The CET was also asked to consider the general question: What can the town do to reduce barriers to and facilitate more engagement by all citizens in substantive town affairs and town meetings?

The CET began by reviewing if any of those questions had been considered in Cambridge before. Background document here. The CET reviewed what other towns had done regarding similar initiatives. Background document here.

The CET read the book All Those In Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community by Susan Clark and Frank Bryan. Susan Clark is the town moderator in Middlesex. Frank Bryan is a UVM professor emeritus of political science. Professor Bryan is well known for his research about town meetings; see his 2004 book Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works.

Susan Clark attended a meeting of the CET and was very helpful.

The CET created and conducted a survey from June 8 through July 22. The survey was advertised on Front Porch Forum and Facebook. The survey was online, but Kevin Whitcavitch also helped citizens complete the survey on paper, which CET members then entered into the online survey. There were 261 responses. The results were summarized on Front Porch Forum on July 26 and discussed in more detail in the report to the selectboard.

The selectboard and the CET encouraged public participation, and the following members of the public attended one or more CET meetings: Stearns Allen, Jon LaRochelle, Tami Wuestenberg, Kevin Whitcavitch, Jerry Cole, Jan Sander. Town Moderator Jerry Cole brought into our discussions (via emails and documents) the expertise of Ed Chase, the town moderator in Westford and the person who the Vermont League of Cities and Towns uses to conduct town moderator training. Full disclosure: Jerry Cole is my brother-in-law.

All of the above activities and resources informed many good discussions by the CET. The full CET met 12 times, and there were additional discussions by subgroups. I want to thank the hard work of everyone on the CET: Tyler Machia, Chair; Meredith Vaughn, Clerk; Karen Denniston; Krista Huling (also a Justice of the Peace); Town Clerk/Treasurer Mark Schilling; and Mark Stebbins (also chair of the school board for Cambridge Elementary School). I especially commend Tyler and Meredith, the youngest members of the CET, for their leadership: creating agendas, scheduling and running meetings, generally keeping us on track and moving forward, taking minutes, writing the report, and presenting the CET’s report to the selectboard.

The selectboard will now take the recommendations of the CET into consideration. I summarize and discuss those recommendations in the next three blog posts.

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

1. Community Engagement Team Report (this post)

2. CET Recommendations – Assigned Questions

3. CET Recommendations – Town Meeting

4. CET Recommendations – Town Administrator

Please refer to the full report at the link in the first paragraph above. My posts are my own views, and do not necessarily represent the views of either the CET or the selectboard.

Reference links:

CET meeting agendas and minutes (includes final report)

CET other documents (mission statement, background documents, final report)

Prior posts on this blog related to this topic:

Town Meeting Thoughts (March 2017, posted after town meeting)

Learning About Government (April 2017, noted the creation of the CET)

Local Governance in the News (October 2017, noted a news article about the CET)

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What is a quorum?

What is a quorum? That is a basic question for government boards, commissions and committees. There should be a simple answer to this question, but a recent experience proved otherwise.

A few days ago we had a meeting of the Board of Abatement in my town of Cambridge, Vermont. I am on this board, and I was elected to take the meeting minutes so I found myself thinking about quorum requirements more than usual.

What is a Board of Abatement? Per 24 V.S.A. § 1535, the board hears certain kinds of property tax appeals. (V.S.A. = Vermont Statutes Annotated, i.e., state law)

Who is on the Board of Abatement? Per 24 V.S.A. § 1533, it consists of the Board of Civil Authority plus the listers and the town treasurer. The Board of Civil Authority (24 V.S.A. § 801) consists of the town clerk, selectboard members, and justices of the peace. There are three listers, three selectboard members (I am one), and nine justices of the peace (JPs). If no person holds more than one office, that is 17 individuals. How many need to be present for there to be a quorum?

The general rule about quorums for state and local government in Vermont is given by 1 V.S.A. § 172 which says:

When joint authority is given to three or more, the concurrence of a majority of such number shall be sufficient and shall be required in its exercise.

Therefore we need a majority of 17 for a quorum, which is nine.

But wait, we aren’t done. Are there any special rules that override the general rule?

Yes, there is a special rule in this instance. 24 V.S.A. § 1533 says: “the town treasurer, a majority of the listers, and a majority of the selectboard” can constitute a quorum. That means as few as five individuals could constitute a quorum. However, that did not apply for our recent meeting. The town treasurer and all of the selectboard attended, but only one of three listers attended. So we are back to the general rule, with nine needed for a quorum.

But wait, we aren’t done. What if some of the positions are vacant?

For example, suppose two of the JP positions are vacant. Do we need a majority of 15 positions (just the positions that are filled) or a majority of 17 positions (all the positions)?

Either approach is logical. One just needs to know which approach is being used. In North Carolina, for example, a majority of just the positions that are filled is needed for a quorum for city councils, while a majority of all the positions, even if some of the positions are vacant, is needed for a quorum for county boards of commissioners. In Vermont, the language above in 1 V.S.A. § 172 is understood to mean that we need a majority of all the positions, even if some are vacant. So we still need nine individuals for a quorum.

But wait, we aren’t done. Does it matter why a position is vacant?

Suppose the two unfilled JP positions are vacant because those persons moved out of town. Above I paraphrased 24 V.S.A. § 801 about the composition of the Board of Civil Authority. The actual language is:

The town clerk, selectboard members and justices residing in a town shall constitute the board of civil authority of such town.

Is the language about “residing in a town” relevant? It seems like it should be, or it wouldn’t be in the statute, but I could not find any discussion online about how this language might inform a quorum calculation. It seems that one could make the case that since the two missing JPs don’t live in town, they are not part of the Board of Civil Authority, and we should not count those two positions. In that interpretation, we would need a majority of 15 to constitute a quorum, which is eight.

But wait, we aren’t done. Does it matter where the two missing JPs moved to?

Suppose one of those persons moved to another town within Vermont, while the other moved out of state. The publication “The Vermont Justice of the Peace Guide” from the Vermont Secretary of State’s office includes the following language pertaining to vacant JP positions:

The governor may fill a vacancy in the office of justice of the peace. A vacancy can occur by resignation, death, insanity or when an incumbent moves to another state. Resignations can be sent to the town clerk and the Office of the Governor.
17 V.S.A. § 2623.

* Moving to another Vermont town or county does not create a vacancy.

Emphasis in the original.

There is no mention in 17 V.S.A. § 2623 about a distinction between moving out of state and moving within state. Indeed there is no mention about moving at all, so I don’t know where the language in the above quote comes from. Perhaps there is an explanation somewhere that I did not find, but at this point I give up. It should not be this complicated to determine how many people need to attend a meeting to have a quorum.

Above we have consulted multiple sections of Vermont law and a publication by the Secretary of State’s office. And we still do not have a clear understanding of the quorum requirement! This level of complexity does not make for good government.

Fortunately, we unquestionably had a quorum at our Board of Abatement meeting a few days ago. The town clerk and town treasurer in Cambridge are the same person, and we have one lister who is also a JP. So we were dealing with a board with 15 individuals instead of 17. We had one JP (not the one who is a lister) who had moved to another town within Vermont. So we were dealing with a count of either 14 or 15 depending on whether or not we should count the position of the JP who had moved out of town. In either case, a majority is eight, and in any event, we had nine individuals present. Whew!

Now let’s consider quorum requirements for the Board of Civil Authority.

The Board of Civil Authority has two main functions: election issues and certain kinds of appeals related to property taxes. As noted above, the Board of Abatement also hears certain kinds of appeals related to property taxes. The purpose of this blog post is to discuss quorum requirements, not which board hears what kind of appeal, but for the present discussion it is worth noting that the two boards are related, both in composition and (in part) in function.

Above I noted that the Board of Civil Authority consists of the town clerk, selectboard members, and justices of the peace. In Cambridge, that is 13 individuals, only two less than the Board of Abatement. How many of the 13 are required for a quorum? If the general rule at 1 V.S.A. § 172 applies, the answer is seven (a majority). Does the general rule apply, or is there a special rule?

There is a special rule at 24 V.S.A. § 801:

The act of a majority of the board present at the meeting shall be treated as the act of the board, except that when the board is dealing with election issues, 17 V.S.A. § 2103(5) shall control.

So, except for election issues, whoever shows up at the meeting constitutes a quorum. That is so much simpler than the rules for the Board of Abatement! There is no need to worry about how vacant positions affect the quorum calculation, or why they are vacant, or where missing JPs moved to. However, it also seems to mean that if only one person shows up for the meeting, that person is a quorum, which seems like an odd situation.

For election issues, we need at least three people to concur per 17 V.S.A. § 2103(5):

Except as otherwise provided in this title, those members of the board of civil authority present and voting shall constitute a quorum, provided that official action may not be taken without the concurrence of at least three members of the board.

But even this special rule is further modified by another special rule in 17 V.S.A. § 2451 for election issues on election day which allows a single person to constitute a quorum. So many special rules!

The quorum rules for the Board of Abatement and Board of Civil Authority are complex, and this is my first in-depth look at them. If I have missed or misstated anything, I hope that informed readers will correct me.

UPDATE 12/08/17: Minor wording changes to improve clarity. No changes in either the facts or the conclusions.

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Toensing v. Internet Domains

The Vermont Supreme Court issued a decision last month saying that personal email used for government business is subject to Vermont’s Public Records Act. The case was Brady C. Toensing v. the Attorney General of Vermont. The decision was unanimous.

The case was about a state official (the attorney general), but the decision also applies to local officials, such as selectboard members (me) and all other officials in my town of Cambridge, Vermont, many of whom are volunteers. Does this decision mean that lawyers will be searching our personal email accounts for public records? No.

Paragraph 36 of the decision (at the link above) lays out the court’s expectations (AGO = Attorney General’s Office):

36. Accordingly, if, in addition to searching the AGO’s own records as it has done, the AGO has policies in place to minimize the use of personal accounts to conduct agency business, provides the specified employees and officials adequate guidance or training as to the distinction between public and nonpublic records, asks them to provide to the AGO any responsive public records in their custody or control, receives a response and brief explanation of their manner of searching and segregating public and nonpublic records, and discloses any nonexempt public records provided, its search will be adequate. This approach strikes a balance between protecting the privacy of state workers and ensuring the disclosure of those public records necessary to hold agencies accountable.

Officials may be asked to search their own personal email accounts in response to a legitimate request under the Public Records Act, but that is all.

Elizabeth Kruska, an attorney in Woodstock, further explains the Vermont Supreme Court’s decision in this excellent article on VTDigger:

SCOV Law Blog: Public records on private emails

The article includes this advice:

And now for the editorial portion: It seems the safest way to prevent this sort of thing from happening is to just not send business emails from a personal account.

I agree! That is good advice. Sometimes, however, especially with local government, an issue arises that I believe has not received sufficient attention.

Email addresses typically use the same Internet domain as the corresponding website. As I noted in an earlier blog post, towns in Vermont use a confusing variety of Internet domains for their websites, including .org, .com and .net. For example, my town’s website is cambridgevt.org and a typical email address for town business is selectboard@cambridgevt.org.

I believe that all government websites in the United States should use the .gov domain. Government is not a charity (.org) or a business (.com) or a network (.net). Government is, well, government – the overarching rulemaker for all parts of public life. And the designers of the Internet thoughtfully provided an appropriate domain (.gov).

I also believe that all government officials should use a .gov email address for all government business. Yes, it is possible to comply with the Toensing decision, and follow Attorney Kruska’s advice, without a .gov email address. But it is so much cleaner and less confusing with a .gov email address.

Citizens should know that whenever they see “.gov” they are dealing with government, whether it is a website or an email. Equally important, they should know that when they see some other domain such as .org or .com, they are NOT dealing with government. Government officials should develop the habit of doing all government business via a .gov email account.

Local governments in Vermont have a long ways to go to standardize on .gov websites and email addresses, but Vermont state government generally sets a good example. A few years ago, most parts of state government standardized on vermont.gov for both websites and email addresses. For example, the website for the Office of the Attorney General is ago.vermont.gov and you can email that office at ago.info@vermont.gov.

What is one of the exceptions to this desirable standard? Alas, the judiciary in Vermont. The “official website of the Vermont Court System” is vermontjudiciary.org.

The photo at the top is the Vermont Supreme Court building in Montpelier (credit).

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George Perkins Marsh

George Perkins Marsh has been called the “Father of the American Conservation Movement” because of his seminal book Man and Nature published in 1864. Today his legacy is honored by the Marsh – Billings – Rockefeller National Historic Park encompassing his childhood home in Woodstock, Vermont. The story of the man, the book, and the park is fascinating.

George Perkins Marsh was born in Woodstock in 1801. His father, one of the preeminent lawyers in the new state of Vermont, taught him to be a careful observer of nature. Marsh later wrote that at the age of four and a half, he learned from his father the importance of a “watershed.”

Marsh was highly intelligent and a voracious reader, teaching himself approximately twenty languages including Greek and Latin. He graduated from Dartmouth College at age 19 but was mostly self-taught. Throughout his life, he soaked up information at every opportunity from both books and nature.

Marsh became a lawyer and moved to Burlington, Vermont. He tried several business ventures but was not particularly successful at either business or law. He was more successful as a politician, serving with distinction first in the Vermont legislature and then in the U.S. House of Representatives 1843-1849. In Washington he played a key role in the founding of the Smithsonian Institution.

But Marsh never forgot the lessons of nature that began at his father’s knee. In 1847 Congressman Marsh gave a salutary speech to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County in which he described the harms resulting from the deforestation that had occurred over much of Vermont “within a single generation,” and he called for improved stewardship of forests. This speech presaged his later book Man and Nature.

Marsh longed for a diplomatic job in Europe, and in 1849 President Zachary Taylor appointed him as minister to the Ottoman Empire. (The photo above is a Mathew Brady portrait taken before leaving for Turkey.) That was not Marsh’s first choice, but it proved to be significant. George and his wife Caroline lived in Constantinople (now Istanbul) for nearly four years. Among their many travels in Europe and around the Mediterranean during this period, they took a journey of several months through Egypt and Palestine. Their travels took them through deserts, some of which Marsh knew from his studies of classical texts had been lush and productive in ancient times.

George and Caroline returned to Burlington in 1854. One of Marsh’s jobs back in Vermont was leading a commission to rebuild the State House in Montpelier – which still stands today – following a fire in 1857. Another job was Vermont Fish Commissioner. Why were fish in Vermont’s rivers declining? Marsh’s report identified the same culprit as his 1847 speech: deforestation. He began to formulate in his mind a book that would explore the effects of human activities on the environment.

In 1861 President Abraham Lincoln appointed Marsh as ambassador to Italy. He finally had his dream job at age 60. George and Caroline moved to Italy where they lived happily and he served honorably as ambassador under presidents Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur (a fellow Vermonter) until his death in 1882. He never returned home. His body is buried in Rome.

Marsh began work on his book soon after moving to Italy, and in 1864 he published Man and Nature. The book begins with a discussion of the Roman Empire, which had been headquartered in Rome of course, and had encompassed, at its greatest extent, all of the Mediterranean and European territory that he and Caroline had experienced, and much more. Marsh wrote about how “more than one half” of the vast and flourishing lands of the Roman Empire had lost their productivity due to mismanagement by humans, primarily deforestation. The book promoted the idea of the interdependence of man and nature. It was well received and widely read, and it helped launch the modern conservation movement in the United States.

One of the people influenced by Man and Nature was Frederick Billings. He had lived in Woodstock as a young man, leaving at the age of 25 in the California gold rush of 1849. Like Marsh he was a lawyer and a businessman, but a successful one. Billings made a fortune in California and later, after he returned east to New York City, in the railroad business (Northern Pacific Railway). Billings, Montana, founded as a railroad town, is named for him.

Billings saw themes in Man and Nature that resonated with the harm from deforestation that he saw in his native Vermont, as well as things he had seen in the denuded gold fields of California. Billings loved Woodstock. He knew the homestead where George Perkins Marsh had been raised. In 1869 he purchased it, and soon set about to create a model farm that would put into action the conservationist principles espoused by Marsh, including the replanting of trees on the barren hillsides above Woodstock.

The Billings Farm grew to be a substantial enterprise. After Frederick Billings died in 1890, the farm was carried on by his widow, then his daughters, and eventually a granddaughter, Mary French. In 1934 she married Laurance Rockefeller, a conservationist himself, and a grandson of John D. Rockefeller.

Mary and Laurance Rockefeller died in 1997 and 2004, respectively, but through their energy and generosity the legacy of George Perkins Marsh continues in Woodstock today. Route 12 divides the property. On the east side is the Billings Farm & Museum, which the Rockefellers opened to the public in 1983. On the west side is the Marsh – Billings – Rockefeller National Historic Park, which the Rockefellers donated to the National Park Service in 1992. The park includes Marsh’s birthplace (expanded into a mansion by Billings and the Rockefellers), a carriage barn which is the visitor center for the park, and more than 500 acres of managed forestland on Mount Tom overlooking the village of Woodstock. Mount Tom had once been nearly shorn of trees. No more.

Both sides of Route 12 are worth a visit. Give yourself plenty of time to wander through the houses, barns, other buildings, exhibits, gardens, fields and woodland trails. On the park side of the road, find the Belvedere, the Forest Center, and the Pogue. For highlights of the other side of the road, see this post on my other blog about a recent visit to the Billings Farm & Museum.

I think George Perkins Marsh would be pleased with how his legacy is remembered in Woodstock, but there is irony here. Marsh did not like business. He preferred intellectual pursuits rather than troubling himself with the details of business. Marsh did not like businessmen. He felt that his many business failures were due to the “naturally greedy” nature of businessmen who had taken advantage of him. Marsh especially did not like railroad men: “My anathema on the scoundrel railroaders and on all railroads whom I loathe with all my soul!” (source p. 91) He had had several misadventures as a passenger, but perhaps the main source of his ire was a substantial loss he had suffered on an ill-timed investment in Vermont Central Railroad.

Yet Marsh’s legacy is preserved in Woodstock with wealth created by two “robber baron” businessmen – Frederick Billings and John D. Rockefeller, through their grandchildren. Billings, the man who conceived the idea of showcasing Marsh’s conservationist principles on the very land where Marsh had been raised, was himself a “scoundrel railroader.” Perhaps the business of business, even the railroad business, is worthy of more respect than Marsh granted it.

It is a fascinating world, both the natural world and the people in it. Man and Nature.

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