Panel works to improve town meeting access
By Amy Ash Nixon
Staff Writer | July 18,2014
EAST MONTPELIER — The Town Meeting Solutions Committee, established in March after the annual town and school district meetings, is continuing its work to explore ways to improve voter participation in the yearly gatherings.
A petition at the annual district meeting in March to consider voting on school budgets by Australian ballot was the impetus for the committee’s formation.
After much discussion on that issue at the March meeting, residents decided not to vote on the Australian ballot question at the time. Instead they asked to have the school board appoint a citizens committee to address low attendance at the annual meetings.
At a recent meeting of the committee, it was noted that there are some 2,100 registered voters in East Montpelier, and less than 10 percent generally attend town meeting. That was the case also at a special meeting in April when voters decided overwhelmingly to decide on future school budgets by Australian ballot.
The committee includes Chairman Stephen Locke, Andy Christiansen, Carl Etnier, Joyce Bean and Dave Coburn. Three new members were later appointed to join the original panel: Jane Staudt, Phillip Heinz and Dan Smith.
Etnier said Tuesday that the committee is satisfied with the number now serving. But, he said, “If others are interested, we haven’t reached the maximum that we had envisioned,” so people can still contact members or attend a meeting.
According to the website for East Montpelier Elementary School, the committee will work through the summer and fall to prepare a report for submission to the school board by Dec. 1.
The committee plans to meet twice monthly. According to the website, it will be “examining data, exploring attempts of other towns, surveying East Montpelier residents, and discussing possible solutions to increasing accessibility” to the district’s annual meeting.
One idea suggested so far is to invite Susan Clark, of Middlesex, to share her insights with East Montpelier. Clark is town moderator in Middlesex and chairwoman of that community’s own Town Meeting Solutions Committee, addressing many of the same concerns that East Montpelier has.
The main challenge: improving attendance at town meetings and encouraging greater civic engagement in decision-making around town and school governance and budgeting.
Among the issues raised at the annual meeting in East Montpelier were the fact that not everyone can attend the traditional town meeting because of their work schedules.
In Middlesex, voters who couldn’t attend town meeting this year were able to use Skype to participate in the meeting by computer. “With a mix of Internet and phone technologies, these voters can hear, see, and speak at the town meeting and participate in voice votes and hand votes. No technical knowledge necessary,” the online information posted for the Middlesex town meeting says.
Middlesex even has what is called a Remote Town Meeting Participation Task Force.
Clark, who has co-written books on local participatory democracy, said Tuesday she was aware that East Montpelier was forming a town meeting committee and that she had offered to come and talk to members when they were ready.
“In Vermont, town meetings are the legislative body of the town, on issues of finance and governance,” said Clark. “We aren’t just voting. It’s a place to deliberate, amend and fully engage citizens.”
She added, “It’s a wonderful process. And like all parts of our democracy, we need to be diligent about keeping it inclusive, accessible and — dare I say it? — fun.”