Learning about town government

This post introduces a series of posts on the subject of learning about town government, specifically in my town of Cambridge, Vermont. I have been on the town selectboard now for about 16 months. What have I learned? At the next annual town meeting on March 5, 2019, less than 8 months from now, the town selectboard will be expanded from 3 members to 5 members. What should new selectboard members learn?

As I write and publish posts in this series, I will add links below:

The photo above is the Cambridge Town Hall. Posts in this series will feature this photo and they will have the tag “LATG” (learning about town government).

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Cambridge Town Hall

The Town Hall in my town of Cambridge, Vermont, has an interesting history. It was built in 1826 as a Union Church to be shared by Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, and Universalists. In the late 1800s it became a town hall, and in the early 1900s a theater. My father used to tell stories about seeing shows and silent movies in that theater when he was a youth in the 1920s.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, the building was known as the “Town Meeting Playhouse” (see photo above). A local theater group produced summer shows there for several years, featuring a combination of professional actors and locals. I was in two plays.

Shortly thereafter, the building became unused and fell into disrepair.

The Town of Cambridge reacquired ownership in 1980. Concerned citizens set about to stabilize the “Old Town Hall” with private donations, grants, and considerable volunteer labor. In numerous town meetings, citizens discussed the future of the building. Should taxpayer money be used to restore the building? Should it be a public building or should it be sold? It was a contentious issue for several years.

The outcome was that the building was retained by the town; it was not sold. Taxpayer money was used to renovate the building, and the interior space was converted into two floors. The U.S. Post Office leased the first floor in 1997. The second floor was initially rented out, but later, in 2007, the Cambridge Town Office moved there. Today the building still houses the U.S. Post Office on the first floor and the Cambridge Town Office on the second floor.

The Town Hall was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981 as the Cambridge Meetinghouse, also called the Old Brick Church. The photo above is from the nomination. The nomination form (at the link) has additional information about the history and architecture of the building.

The photo below is from the Cambridge Historical Society. It is undated, but the text says “Before Paved Roads.” That was a while ago!

The photo below is the Town Hall today:

The Cambridge Town Office on the second floor includes the offices of the town clerk and treasurer, the town administrator, and the listers. There is adequate meeting space for small groups. Most boards, commissions, and committees in town government hold their meetings there, including the selectboard that I am on. Town meetings of the voters, which are much larger meetings, are held in the gymnasium at the Cambridge Elementary School, a short distance from the Town Hall.

A point of clarification in case it is confusing: The Town of Cambridge includes two incorporated villages – the Village of Cambridge and the Village of Jeffersonville. Each village has its own U.S. Post Office. The post office in the Village of Cambridge is zip code 05444; Jeffersonville is 05464. The Cambridge Town Hall and the Cambridge Elementary School are both located in the Village of Jeffersonville which is in the Town of Cambridge.

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Dana Sweet Wins Marvin Award

Dana Sweet wins Marvin Award

Dana Sweet is the recipient of the 2018 Jim Marvin Award Recognizing Excellence in Community Service. Congratulations, Dana! This award is well deserved.

Dana is serving in his 30th year on the selectboard for the town of Cambridge and is the current chair of the selectboard. From the press release about the award:

He has provided stability and leadership to a town that has almost doubled in population and grand list since his election to the board in 1989. During his tenure the town has replaced its entire infrastructure.

That infrastructure includes a town hall, town garage, fire station, rescue squad building, and 63 miles of town roads, all in good condition. The town’s finances are in good condition, too, with less than $1 million of outstanding debt for the fire station built in 2012 and which will be paid off in 2022.

The Jim Marvin Awards are presented annually by the Lamoille County Planning Commission, one of the regional planning commissions in Vermont. The awards honor the memory of Jim Marvin who was a long-time dedicated volunteer in Johnson. The awards were presented on June 12 at a reception in Hyde Park at The Governor’s House (a classic Vermont inn, not the home of the governor of Vermont). Cambridge, Johnson, and Hyde Park are all towns in Lamoille County. The award that Dana is holding in the photo above is in the shape of Lamoille County.

Several people from Cambridge were present to see Dana receive his award: the long-time town clerk 1974-2016 who worked with Dana for many years; the current town clerk; representatives from the listers, auditors, town office staff, and the village of Cambridge (which is distinct from the town of Cambridge); the other two members of the Cambridge selectboard; and family members.

Larry Wyckoff has served on the Cambridge selectboard with Dana since 2012 and says the following in the press release about the award:

Dana is a one of a kind. It is extremely rare for a community to be fortunate enough to have an individual such as Dana serve for so long. For that the Town of Cambridge is grateful.

Although I have only served on the Cambridge selectboard with Dana for a year, I have come to greatly respect his accomplishments and his judgment. Cambridge is a great town to live in! And that is due in significant part to leadership from people like Dana.

The Marvin Awards resonate with the question in the header of this blog: “What is a proper relationship between a free people and their government?” Part of the answer to that question is that you need people like Dana in local government.

Alexis de Tocqueville noted this aspect of democracy more than 175 years ago in Democracy in America. An astute observer, Tocqueville recognized the importance of local government in America—which was unlike anything in his experience in Europe. He was particularly impressed by the organization of local government in New England, and early in the book he wrote a long chapter describing it: “Necessity of Studying What Takes Place in the Particular States before Speaking of the Government of the Union” (Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 5).

In this chapter Tocqueville dissects the structure of town government in an unnamed town in Massachusetts. He has a lot to say about the role of the selectmen (in that age it was always men) and then he has a long paragraph about all the other elected and appointed officials in the town: assessors, tax collectors, constable, clerk, cashier, overseer of the poor, school commissioners, highway inspectors, inspectors of several other kinds, etc. “In all,” Tocqueville wrote:

the principal offices of the township number nineteen.

Some of the roles and titles have changed over the years, but it still takes a selectboard and numerous other officials to run a town government. Some of them are in the photo above and in the other awards mentioned in the press release linked above.

Tocqueville believed that the success of the American experiment in self-government began with local government in the town:

The institutions of a township are to freedom what primary schools are to science; they put it within reach of the people; they make them taste its peaceful employ and habituate them to making use of it. Without the institutions of a township a nation can give itself a free government, but it does not have the spirit of freedom.

Thank you to Dana and to all who selflessly serve in town governments.

(Photo credit: Lamoille County Planning Commission)

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Penalty for filing a tax form late

Consider a thought experiment. Suppose that you have lived in my town of Cambridge, Vermont, for many years in a house you own. One year your property tax bill from the town includes a new item: “penalty for late filed homestead declaration.” This has never happened before, and you don’t know what it is about, so you start asking questions.

You learn that the town assessed this penalty because a state tax form was filed late (you make a note to talk with your tax preparer about that). You ask if you can appeal the penalty, since you have been a long-time taxpayer in good standing. The state says yes – appeal to the town. The town says the penalty is not appealable. This seems odd, and you ask more questions. No one in either state or town government can give satisfying answers to your questions.

How would you feel? I would feel pretty darn frustrated!

This situation happened last year. The penalty was for late filing of the Vermont state tax form HS-122 “Homestead Declaration AND Property Tax Adjustment Claim.” This form is normally filed with the state income tax return, and it is used to declare one’s homestead. In Vermont, homestead property taxes assessed by the town are linked to state income taxes. This form is critical to establishing that link. When this form is filed late, it creates extra work for both state and town employees.

The taxpayer researched state law about the homestead declaration (32 V.S.A. § 5410) and found that the law says that the town “may” charge a penalty if the declaration is filed late. This implies that the town must have made a deliberate decision in the past to charge a penalty, right? Taxpayer asks: Who in town made that decision, and when and why? No one in town government knows. Furthermore, the law says that the penalty may be “up to three percent of the education tax on the property.” Taxpayer was indeed charged 3%. Taxpayer asks: Who in town made the decision to charge the maximum penalty of 3% instead of 2% or 1%, and when and why was that decision made? No one in town government knows.

I am part of town government, and we aren’t looking very good here! What’s going on?

It took some digging, but I discovered that the heart of the matter was changes in state law. The 2003 state law that originally required filing a homestead declaration also mandated a penalty of 3% for late filing of said declaration. It was not optional. So systems and software were set up all over Vermont to assess a 3% penalty if the required form was filed late. Only several years later did the legislature make the penalty optional, and only several years after that did the legislature add the language “up to” 3%.

Should the town have known about these changes in state law, and taken deliberate action once they were given options that they didn’t have before? In a perfect world, yes. But no one can keep up with the thousands of changes in state law made by the legislature every year. These changes were relatively minor and Cambridge is likely not the only town in Vermont where these changes in state law escaped notice.

What about the confusion about appeal rights? It turns out that the state gave bad advice, but the town did not know the right answer, either.

The state told the taxpayer that the penalty was appealable to the town’s Board of Abatement. The town said that the penalty was not appealable because the section of state law that lists the things that are appealable to the Board of Abatement does not include this penalty. The town was correct in this regard, but neither state nor town gave the correct advice to the taxpayer, which was to appeal to the town’s Board of Civil Authority.

Here the heart of the matter was not changes in state law, but overly complex state law. The right to appeal to the Board of Civil Authority, not the Board of Abatement, is referenced circuitously in a single sentence buried in a long and complex paragraph dealing with multiple matters at 32 V.S.A. § 5410(j). I had to read that paragraph several times myself to understand how to appeal this penalty.

Successful democracy requires citizens who respect the law. That is part of the answer to the question in the header on this blog: “What is a proper relationship between a free people and their government?”

What can contribute to citizens losing respect for the law? Law that is overly complex and constantly changing. This post is about just one small example.

If you are interested in more details about this example, click here for a memo that I wrote last fall about this matter for Cambridge town government. That memo includes the legislative history of 32 V.S.A. § 5410, and my analysis of the complicated language in § 5410(j) about appeal rights.

32 V.S.A. § 5410 originated in 1997 and has changed many more times over the years than I mentioned above. Originally the filing of a homestead declaration was optional, but it was made mandatory in 2003. At that time the requirement was to file a homestead declaration annually, but later it was required only if there was a change. When that caused problems, the law was changed back to a mandatory annual filing. As noted above, beginning in 2003 the penalty for late filing was 3% (mandatory) but for a time it was reduced to 1% (still mandatory). Later it was changed back to 3% (still mandatory). Not until 2011 was the penalty made optional. The language “up to” 3% was added in 2014. That section of law has been amended 14 times (as of the date of the memo).

The law is also more complex than I described above. There are circumstances, fortunately not applicable here, where the (now optional) penalty is not up to 3% but up to 8%. Whew!

This example holds lessons for our democracy. One of the weaknesses of democracy is that government officials are prone to make complex laws and constantly tinker with them, albeit often in response to requests or complaints by citizens, but thereby contributing to loss of respect for the law.

Alexis de Tocqueville noted these weaknesses of democracy more than 175 years ago in Democracy in America.

He wrote about the dangers of constantly changing laws in Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 7: “On the Omnipotence of the Majority in the United States and Its Effects.” An excerpt:

Legislative instability is an evil inherent in democratic government…

He wrote about the dangers of overly complex laws in Volume 2, Part 4, Chapter 6: “What Kind of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear.” An excerpt:

[T]he sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way…

Our democracy would be stronger if both citizens and government officials more diligently guarded against these weaknesses.

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Tweets from Kanye West

Kanye West said something interesting on Twitter this past week:

I don’t agree with everything anyone does. That’s what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought. … I don’t agree 100% with anyone but myself.

That is similar to something that I occasionally say to my wife and others: “I’ve never found anyone that I disagree with on everything. And I’ve never found anyone that I agree with on everything. Even myself.” The qualifier at the end is because I know I’m not completely consistent in my views (few people are), and because I wish to preserve the flexibility to occasionally change my mind, and probably also because I don’t have Kanye’s level of self-confidence.

Kanye’s comments are related to the question in the header on this blog: “What is a proper relationship between a free people and their government?” One requirement of a proper relationship is citizens who think for themselves. If you find yourself letting some other person or group always do your thinking for you, then I question if you are free.

Of course, it is natural to consider what others think – to learn from them, and sometimes to outsource our thinking because we ourselves cannot be fully informed on every issue. But it is essential to think for ourselves as much as possible. Don’t fall for groupthink.

If like me you don’t know a lot about Kanye West, see Wikipedia. Apparently he has 27.9 million followers on Twitter, and he follows exactly one person: his wife. Smart man. For the source of that information, and the above quote, see this post by blogger Ann Althouse, a professor of law emerita at the University of Wisconsin Law School.

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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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