How to bring Town Meeting back to life

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WEB town meeting bookcopyright the Chronicle March 11, 2015

All Those In Favor, Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community, by Susan Clark and Frank Bryan. Paperback. 87 pages. Published by Ravenmark, Montpelier, Vermont.

Reviewed by Tena Starr

Frank Bryan is likely Vermont’s staunchest champion of Town Meeting. He studied it for 30 years, and in this book, a tenth-anniversary update of the 2005 original, he and co-author Susan Clark add analysis of another 12 years.

Their research indicates that Town Meeting is in some trouble — no surprise — but they’re by no means announcing its demise. Instead, they suggest a number of ways to shoot a bit of adrenalin into Vermont’s system of direct democracy.

Primarily, they are opposed to moving toward Australian ballot, which they argue, is, indeed, a death sentence for Town Meetings. And they provide evidence that fiddling with the time, or the day, does not necessarily increase attendance. In many cases, moving from a Tuesday daytime meeting to a weekend or evening meeting has decreased participation because, as the authors point out, while many people don’t want to lose a workday to attend Town Meeting, even more don’t want to give up leisure time.

The primary reasons for decreased attendance are the size of a town and the issues on the Warning, the authors say. The bigger a town gets, the smaller the percentage of attendance. And if a Town Meeting Warning has little of consequence on it — few issues that affect or captivate voters — they’re more likely to stay away.

“While it is doubtful that there was ever a golden era of Town Meeting when nearly everyone turned out every year, attendance was much higher in the early days than today,” the book says. “Even well into the twentieth century it was much higher than it is now. Given the difficulties of life (from hugely longer workdays and work weeks, to much poorer transportation systems, to remarkably greater potential for sickness and poor health generally) one is struck by how complete Town Meeting democracy was in the past.

“Those who believe that people are much busier today than they were in the past (and that includes most commentators on modern life) have an incomplete understanding of history. What we really mean when we say we are busier today is that we have different priorities.

“Consider the little town of Craftsbury in the Northeast Kingdom as it was in 1840. So difficult was transportation over and through its rocky hillsides, it took 12 separate school districts to educate the children. The majority of the people farmed. They kept 333 horses, 1,718 cattle, 3,166 sheep, and 658 swine. They produced 47,906 pounds of potatoes and 14,398 bushels of oats along with 5,705 bushels of other crops, 3,171 tons of hay and 35,412 pounds of sugar. Meanwhile, they ran two gristmills, a hulling mill, two carding machine operations, ten sawmills, two fulling mills, three carriage makers, and one oil mill.

“Fewer than 1,200 women, men, and children accomplished all this. If you’ve ever worked on a small farm, or in the woods, you know that these people not only worked hard, they worked smart. Their lives were fully as complex and demanding, perhaps even more complex and demanding as ours today.

“If they can do it, we can do it, too.”

The Northeast Kingdom isn’t much plagued by the biggest hindrance to Town Meeting attendance — population. Only Newport and St. Johnsbury are big enough to reach the tipping point where attendance, or lack of, can be attributed to size, according to the authors’ formula.

But Town Meeting is affected everywhere by loss of local control. Issues, and whether voters have control over them or not, are at the heart of attendance in small towns, the authors assert. And Vermonters have had increasingly little say in much of what matters to them most.

For instance, under the current school funding system, cutting a local school budget does not necessarily translate into a tax decrease.

“The most reliable predictor of Town Meeting attendance, besides population size, is what’s on the Warning,” the book says. “Examples abound, but let’s visit one meeting in the Northeast Kingdom town of Holland after a particularly bad winter had deteriorated the town’s roads. Imagine this meeting’s discussion about whether to switch from an appointed road commissioner to an elected one. Combine this discussion with the fact that a challenger was running against a key select board member on this issue. The result: The attendance normally predicted for a town this size was exceeded by 100 percent.”

This book goes so far as to say that an item should be included on the Warning each year specifically to grab people’s attention. It suggests something like an item saying alcohol be banned within town limits. While that’s a bit of a stretch, the point is made.

Town Meetings are important not just because they give people a chance to practice hands-on governance, but also because of the community they provide, the authors say. And in neither case does moving toward Australian ballot help, they argue.

“In a well intentioned effort to include more people in decision making, an increasing number of Vermont towns are destroying their town meetings in the process.

“The Australian ballot is quick, easy, private, unaccountable, and most important, simple. It is also deadly.

“In a way, the Australian ballot is worse than deadly because it doesn’t kill Town Meeting quickly. And the execution is dishonest. We are told it will save Town Meeting, while the reality is that it poisons it and lets it die slowly….

“It leaves a town with neither a legislature nor a Town Meeting. In doing so it compromises the actions of the select board or school board, which must anticipate how the community will react to an issue and then submit this best guess to a winner-take-all decision.”

Also, the authors say, flexibility is forfeited because the ability to make amendments is lost. School boards may watch an entire budget go down because a compromise on one issue isn’t possible. Projects that could have been saved with a bit of tinkering are rejected because tinkering wasn’t an option.

“Using the Australian ballot instead of a Town Meeting is like creating an ice sculpture by taking one great swing at a block of ice with a sledgehammer instead of carefully applying a chisel with care over time,” the book says.

And informational meetings don’t fill the void because Vermonters don’t just want to talk about things, they want to do something about them, the authors say.

“The golden key to participation is to give citizens real power and real decisions to make,” the book says.

“Unlike the polling booth, Town Meetings can be exciting, interesting, and fun. They bring politics to life. Here laughter is often heard. Here we meet neighbors we haven’t seen for ages. Here we learn that Bill Stone over on the North Road is having trouble in mud season, too. Here we discover that the town library is offering a new program for our kids. Here, most of all, we get to see ourselves in the full light of real democracy.”

To improve Town Meeting, the authors suggest the following:

Highlight the issues. Select boards should creatively publicize certain items so people are aware of what’s happening. Develop a relationship with the local newspaper editor, they say, and ask for help getting the word out about major issues.

Arrange for childcare. “Happily one of the most important methods proven to increase Town Meeting attendance is also relatively simple: provide childcare during the meeting. Statistics show that this can improve attendance measurably, especially among women.” Generally, a local organization such as the Girl Scouts or the parent teacher association provides the childcare and benefits from any donations parents might like to offer.

If possible, skip microphones since they increase people’s anxiety about speaking in public.

Eat. The best-attended Town Meetings include food.

Build the agenda carefully. If a meeting drags on, people will leave, particularly after a meal, so if the most important items are voted on at the end of the meeting, fewer people will vote.

Include elements of celebration.

Susan Clark is a community facilitator and Frank Bryan is a University of Vermont political science professor emeritus.

The book is available at local bookstores or from www.vtinstituteforgovt.org for $9.95 plus $2.50 for shipping. To inquire about municipal or nonprofit pricing, or bulk orders, contact the Vermont Institute for Government at (802) 223-5824, or sclark@sover.net.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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Safe Haven — a home for unwanted horses

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WEB Safe havencopyright the Chronicle October 22, 2014

by Tena Starr

HOLLAND — Tara Girard has taken in 17 horses this year, all of them horses that someone else didn’t want anymore, or at least couldn’t afford. Of the ten harbored by Safe Haven Farm right now, she said that she only bought one, and he was a hard luck case, too.

The little Morgan had a concussion and a dislocated tail. She calls him “a bought rescue.”

She’s had a few of those.

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Lyme disease victims seek more options

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This is a tick that Graci Rudolph found on her skin recently.  She saved it to be tested for Lyme disease.  She was bitten by a tick three years ago and got Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

This is a tick that Graci Rudolph found on her skin recently. She saved it to be tested for Lyme disease. She was bitten by a tick three years ago and got Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle July 2, 2014  

by Bethany M. Dunbar

HOLLAND — Graci Rudolph was the director of an active nonprofit organization in New York, working long days. It was work she thrived on and a cause she believed in. She did public speaking and fund-raising, including television appearances.

Then one day — three years ago — she got bitten by a little insect, a tick, and got Lyme disease. Soon she could not sleep, her body became wracked with the most intense pain she has ever felt, she lost her physical balance and her ability to think clearly, or sometimes even get out of bed.

She wanted to die and says she can understand some Lyme disease patients’ impulse to commit suicide.

Ms. Rudolph, who now lives in Holland, is one of a sharply increasing number of people in Vermont who have contracted Lyme disease. According to the Vermont Department of Health, there were 37 cases in Vermont in 2002, and 623 in 2011. Most of the cases have been in the southern part of the state, but cases have been reported in every county except for Essex.

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Dirty 40 racers enjoy the best of the Northeast Kingdom’s back roads

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A soft whir, hum and crunch was all that alerted the casual observer to the arrival of the first group of cyclists heading along Nelson Hill Road during the first stage of the Dirty 40 race on Saturday.  In its inaugural year, the race raised an estimated $4,000 to help support the Mary E. Wright Halo Foundation, which provides financial assistance to Orleans County families dealing with cancer.  Photos by Richard Creaser

A soft whir, hum and crunch was all that alerted the casual observer to the arrival of the first group of cyclists heading along Nelson Hill Road during the first stage of the Dirty 40 race on Saturday. In its inaugural year, the race raised an estimated $4,000 to help support the Mary E. Wright Halo Foundation, which provides financial assistance to Orleans County families dealing with cancer. Photos by Richard Creaser

by Richard Creaser

HOLLAND —  There was very little warning of when the riders would make their first appearance, only a best guess and a couple of Labrador’s barking out a greeting at a photographer.  The sound came first, the crunch of tires on gravel, the steady whir of gears and wheels and legs united in motion.  Then a blur surged out from the trees shrouding the bend and the leaders emerged in tight formation, swelling like a wave of brilliant blues and yellows, reds and whites.

Smiling cyclists streamed by for perhaps 20 minutes, bodies bent forward to reduce drag, legs pumping as the riders hit yet another incline however slight.  Over the next six hours, 200 cyclists would clock in, having completed the inaugural Dirty 40 race.  Others would drop out along the way, and still more would finish their runs, proud about the accomplishment if not overly concerned about their time.

“That’s what’s really great about this race,” Todd Bowden of Glastonbury, Connecticut, said at the after race party at Tavern on the Hill in Derby.  “It’s very laid back and not super serious.  You race for the love of it and for the bragging rights, not the hardware.”

On this day, the bragging rights would belong to Mr. Bowden.  He led all racers with a blistering time of 2:55:21.6 over the 60-mile course, 40 of which were on the gravel roads that give the race its name.

Eric Daigle of Newport Center rides by pastured horses drinking in the scenery on the race route of the Dirty 40 cycle race.  Participants traveled from all over New England, New York, Quebec, and Ontario to take part in the inaugural gravel road race.

Eric Daigle of Newport Center rides by pastured horses drinking in the scenery on the race route of the Dirty 40 cycle race. Participants traveled from all over New England, New York, Quebec, and Ontario to take part in the inaugural gravel road race.

Not that Mr. Bowden completely blew the competition out of the water.  Iain Radford of Chelsea, Quebec, and Matt Surch of Ottawa, Ontario, finished with times of 2:55:22.9 and 2:55:23.0.  Five other racers also finished within 24 seconds of Mr. Bowden’s precedent setting time.

On the women’s side, Kathleen Lysakowski of Quincy, Massachusetts, led the field with a time of 3:12:17.3, followed by Heather Voisin of Montpelier with a time of 3:14:14.4 and Danielle Ruane of Bow, New Hampshire, with her time of 3:16:52.7.

Bev Gage of Orleans came in thirty-second overall, earning her the dubious distinction of being dead last with a time of 6:11:13.  There was no hang-dog expression for Ms. Gage, however.  As someone who only began riding in earnest in July and whose previous longest ride had been 32 miles, Ms. Gage was proud simply to have finished.

“My inspiration was raising money for the Halo Foundation,” she said.  “Doing something to helps others is just so wonderful.  Anthony (Moccia) and Heidi (Myers) should be so proud of what they accomplished.”

As the founders and organizing forces behind the Dirty 40, Mr. Moccia and Ms. Myers worked diligently to round up sponsors and work the social networks to attract racers to the event.

Behind it all, however, was the fact that all profits from the race would go to benefit the Mary E. Wright Halo Foundation, which provides financial support to Orleans County cancer survivors and the families of individuals fighting cancer.  Ms. Myers said Monday morning that, although the numbers are preliminary, she expects the Dirty 40 race and raffle raised an estimated $4,000 for the Halo Foundation.

Dave Lafoe of Norton plays a game of chicken with a photographer during the first leg of the Dirty 40 cycling race Saturday.  As the oldest listed participant in the race at age 72, Mr. Lafoe finished with a respectable time of 4:41:31.

Dave Lafoe of Norton plays a game of chicken with a photographer during the first leg of the Dirty 40 cycling race Saturday. As the oldest listed participant in the race at age 72, Mr. Lafoe finished with a respectable time of 4:41:31.

“We’re pretty happy about that,” she said.  “We’d like to raise more next year.  We could have raised more but it being the first year there was no registration fee for the first 100 riders.”

When the Dirty 40 was conceived the ideals behind the race included a celebration of what rural Vermont was all about — back roads, gorgeous countryside and a community that stands together to help its own.

The friendliness of the community was apparent to the cyclists participating in the race.  Locals came out to wave at the riders as they passed by.

“I’m not really sure where it was, but there were some little girls serving lemonade,” Robert Schiesser of South Royalton recalled.  “How great is that?  I really couldn’t tell you how the organizers could have designed a better course.”

Even a local like Ms. Gage was impressed at the breadth of terrain the course encompassed.  Whether as a cyclist or just someone enjoying the area, the beauty of the Northeast Kingdom was to be found everywhere along the route, she said.

“I had a chance to go on some dirt roads I never would have traveled before,” Ms. Gage said.  “It really opens your eyes to how beautiful and how special a place we live in.”

While the beauty of the landscape was most often mentioned by participants, it was the challenge of the course that appealed to hardened cyclists like Mr. Bowden.

“It was a tough course, a real challenge,” he said.  “Unlike your traditional road race the ending was not proscribed.  It was a little bit crazier with a lot more variables thrown in there.”

Mr. Schiesser comes from a mountain bike racing background.  While some elements translate from mountain bike racing to gravel road racing, it was a new kind of experience for him.

“Mountain bike racing is won in the turns,” he said.  “In this kind of race you need to be in it the whole way, there is no last push to get through.  You need to pace yourself.”

Gravel road races are growing in popularity but the amount of races available are still limited, Mr. Bowden said.  That’s why he was more than willing to make the trek up from Connecticut to participate in the Dirty 40.

“It’s a really unique area,” Mr. Bowden said.  “Something is changing all of the time.  Those last 5 kilometers with the steep climb was hard, real hard.”

Mr. Bowden praised the work of the road crews responsible for maintaining the gravel roads that comprised the Dirty 40 course.  In general, gravel road racing requires a thicker tire with an aggressive tread.  Road conditions on Saturday were such that a rider could have gotten away with a narrower tread because of the excellent state of the roads.  Narrower treads lead to less resistance and a corresponding increase in speed, he explained.

Voyaging through the back roads was more than a bike race, Mr. Schiesser said.  It was akin to an adventure race where you need to be prepared for any and all sorts of conditions.  He even likened the course to a ride through Alaska’s boreal forest.

“I thought it was really neat to be out there,” he said.  “I think the course was just right.”

If there is one change to be recommended, it came from Ms. Gage.  Her recommendation was that perhaps someone better prepared might be able to take her place in next year’s race.

“I’m proud that I did it and that I’m still standing after,” Ms. Gage said.  “I still want to be involved but I think I might volunteer next year.  It was a wonderful experience and a great cause.  That’s why we do these things, to help people.”

contact Richard Creaser at nek_scribbler@hotmail.com

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