Is Town Meeting Obsolete? That was the question of an online debate sponsored by the Moore Free Library of Newfane, Vermont, on March 16, 2021, two weeks after Town Meeting Day.
Arguing for the question were:
- Richard Watts, Ph.D., a Putney native – director of the Center for Research on Vermont and senior lecturer in the Department of Geography at the University of Vermont (UVM).
- Howard Burrows, Ph.D. of Brattleboro – retired scientist and founder of the Library Innovation Center.
Arguing against the question were:
- Susan Clark – writer, educator, and town moderator in Middlesex. Co-author of All Those In Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community.
- Annamarie Pluhar of Dummerston – consultant and “passionate advocate for shared housing.” Founder and president of Sharing Housing, Inc.
Richard Watts discussed the seminal research about town meeting conducted by Frank Bryan of UVM, whose students attended and documented 1,500 town meetings over 30 years. Dr. Bryan summarized that research in his 2003 book Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works. After a hiatus, Dr. Bryan’s research is being continued by Dr. Watts. Dr. Watts cited the declining attendance at town meeting documented by this research.
Susan Clark referred to All Those In Favor, co-authored with Frank Bryan, as the “Reader’s Digest version” of Real Democracy. Susan’s other book is also relevant to this discussion: Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home, co-authored with Woden Teachout. In her debate comments, Susan mentioned the research about town meeting by Jane Mansbridge of Harvard University, and the research about human behavior by Jonathan Haidt of New York University.
Annamarie Pluhar discussed the research about social capital by Robert Putnam of Harvard University. Her view: “As long as we have towns, we need town meeting.”
Howard Burrows talked about how libraries are changing. He believes that libraries can assume much of the role of town meeting.
There was good audience participation in the debate, including by Jerry Cole, the Cambridge town moderator. At the end of the debate, Meg Mott asked the audience to vote on the question. It was unanimous:
The negative has it, and the affirmative was heard.
Click here for the announcement about the debate.
Click here to watch the debate: Is Town Meeting Obsolete?
The Brattleboro Reformer wrote about the debate here. This event followed the debate guidelines of Braver Angels and was made possible by funding from the Vermont Humanities Council. Librarian Erica Walch of the Moore Free Library coordinated the technology for this event.
Questions about town meeting are not new. I first encountered these issues soon after I started this blog in 2017. See Town Meeting Thoughts. The discussion continues!
Town meeting this year in my town of Cambridge, Vermont, is discussed in the preceding post: Town Meeting 2021. Like most towns in Vermont this year, we abandoned our traditional in-person meeting because of the pandemic lockdown. All issues this year were decided by Australian ballot. I hope that our 2022 town meeting returns to the traditional in-person meeting. I do believe that town meeting helps build social capital and citizenship skills, both of which are needed in our society today more than ever.