Learning About Government

One of my stated goals in retirement, after a career in business, was to learn about government. So, four months into retirement, what am I learning?

When I wrote (in December and February) that I wanted to learn about government, I had in mind state government. And my plan was to be a casual observer, not a participant. Well, that plan didn’t last long! I am now immersed in town government instead of state government. And as a member of the town selectboard, I am a participant not an observer.

What does a town selectboard do? The Vermont Legislature says that the selectboard is responsible for the “the general supervision of the affairs of the town … not committed by law to the care of any particular officer.” That’s reasonably vague. Selectboards are responsible for local roads and animal control, for example, among other things. I am learning that there is a lot going on in town that I didn’t know about before – not just on the selectboard but also in a host of other local boards, commissions and committees. One of my first activities was to delve into the local commuter bus, which was the subject of a confused discussion at town meeting last month. This was something I knew little about, and it involved coordination with the town conservation commission. There is a lot to learn.

Fortunately there are resources to help local officials learn and perform their jobs. The Vermont League of Cities and Towns provides numerous handbooks and workshops for local officials. I attended their Spring Selectboards Institute last month. The University of Vermont Extension Service puts on an annual Town Officers’ Education Conference which I attended earlier this month. Town Clerk/Treasurer Mark Schilling attended both events with me.

At those conferences I learned about “Dillon’s Rule” vs. home rule. Vermont is a Dillon’s Rule state – municipalities have only those authorities granted by the Legislature. I also learned about Vermont’s Open Meeting Law. Both topics are new for me, but not completely unexpected.

There is one topic I’m learning about that was completely unexpected. When I decided to run for local office, I did not anticipate being involved in discussions about the theory and practice of democracy itself.

As a result of lively discussions at town meeting last month, the selectboard created a Community Engagement Team to explore issues of citizen involvement in local government. I am on this committee representing the selectboard. More information is on the town’s website here (committee meeting agendas and minutes) and here (other committee documents).

This is an interesting topic! I had previously read All Those In Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community by Susan Clark and Frank Bryan, mentioned in my earlier blog post Town Meeting Thoughts. I am now reading Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works by Frank Bryan, pictured above. This is a great book for learning about democracy as practiced in both Athens, Greece, two thousand five hundred years ago, and in Athens, Vermont, today.

The image on the cover of Real Democracy is Norman Rockwell’s famous Freedom of Speech painting, inspired by an actual event that he witnessed at a Vermont town meeting. The citizens of Arlington, Vermont, held a special town meeting in the winter of 1941 to discuss construction of a new school to replace the one that had burned. Jim Edgerton was the only person in town opposed to the new school, yet all listened respectfully to him. Click here for the story of Norman Rockwell’s memorable Four Freedoms paintings which illustrated the themes in President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms speech.

UPDATE 3/08/18: The New York Times has an article today about an upcoming exhibition of the Four Freedoms paintings: “Norman Rockwell’s Vision of F.D.R.’s Four Freedoms.” (Subscription probably required, sorry.) The exhibition will be titled “Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms.” It will initially be at the New-York Historical Society May 25 to Sept. 2, and then it will travel. Details in the article.

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