How to bring Town Meeting back to life


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 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

contact Tena Starr at

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Reviews pages.  For all the Chronicle’s stories, subscribe:

Print subscription

Annual online subscription

Short-term online subscription


Ruminations: On the historic rise of the birthday cake


Photo by Lara Starr

Photo by Lara Starr

copyright the Chronicle March 4, 2015

by Tena Starr

My family isn’t overly fond of cake, which got me to wondering about the history of the ritual. How is it that cake and candles are such an entrenched tradition that people who don’t even really like cake still have it at a birthday celebration?

(To be honest here, Chris at Parker Pie made this year’s birthday cake, and most of us confessed that we did, indeed, like it. So maybe it’s just the cakes we make ourselves that we’re not so fond of.)

Continue reading


Novel brings Haitian slave children to light


WEB review gold exchangecopyright the Chronicle February 11, 2015

Reviewed by Tena Starr

The Gold Exchange, Exposing Haiti’s Child Slavery System, by Susan Belding. Paperback. 273 pages. Published by Willoughby Gap Press. $8.14 on Amazon.

Susan Belding (who many of you would know as Susan Ferland) is a former Lake Region Union High School English teacher. She now lives in Florida, where until last month, she continued to teach, although to a quite different student body than the Northeast Kingdom’s. Many of her students have been Haitian, and those students inspired her to write The Gold Exchange, a young adult, coming of age novel that takes a look at Haiti’s deplorable restavek system.

Continue reading


the Chronicle changes hands


A solid reminder of how we used to operate — an old manual typewriter — sits in a corner of the Chronicle office.  The hat belonged to Anna Baker, the artist responsible for the Chronicle cows, and on the wall behind it is a copy of the original flyer announcing the start of a new newspaper, the Chronicle.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

A solid reminder of how we used to operate — an old manual typewriter — sits in a corner of the Chronicle office. The hat belonged to Anna Baker, the artist responsible for the Chronicle cows, and on the wall behind it is a copy of the original flyer announcing the start of a new newspaper, the Chronicle. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle February 4, 2015

by Chris Braithwaite

To me the Chronicle will always be a novelty — a shot in the dark, a crazy gamble undertaken with almost no money but all the energy a 30-year-old immigrant could summon in himself, his wife, and a handful of friends.

But more than half the people living in Orleans County today had a Chronicle to read when they were old enough to read anything. And when my mind wanders up and down the streets of Barton Village, I can’t find a business that has been around, under continuous ownership, any longer than the Chronicle.

Those are hardly the trappings of a novelty. And at 70, I am a long way from the youngster who set out to see if small-town weekly journalism could be as complex, as challenging, as rewarding as the big-city journalism he’d left behind four years before.

After four decades I can report the result of that experiment. The stories I’ve encountered have been every bit as complex, and just as “good” — in the hard-eyed way that reporters evaluate their raw material — as the stories any reporter covers, anywhere.

Continue reading


Stories reflect beauty, complexity of Vermont


WEB review vermont fictioncopyright the Chronicle January 21, 2015

Reviewed by Tena Starr

Contemporary Vermont Fiction, an Anthology. Edited by Robin MacArthur. Published by Green Writers Press. Paperback. 226 pages. $21.00.

Vermont has a lot of writers. In fact, I’ve heard, or read, that it has more writers, per capita, than any other state.

What editor Robin MacArthur has done with this anthology is collect some of the best work of some of the best of them. The book includes pieces by Howard Frank Mosher, Julia Alvarez, Castle Freeman Jr., Wallace Stegner, Annie Proulx, and Bill Schubart, as well as from at least a half dozen perhaps less familiar, but no less moving, writers.

Continue reading


Medical pot users banned from guns


copyright the Chronicle January 21, 2015

by Tena Starr

A North Troy man suspects that the reason he was not allowed to buy a .38 revolver last year is that he uses marijuana for medical purposes.

He may be right. Although no state law prohibits a medical marijuana user from buying or owning a gun, federal law does.

Steve Merrill said he’s been collecting guns since he was a kid and had his own store in Pennsylvania at one time. He moved to Vermont in 2001 and had no trouble buying guns here either — at least until a year or two ago.

In 2009 he got a certificate saying he could use marijuana to treat a chronic illness and a crippled foot. Mr. Merrill says he’s never been a recreational drug user, he doesn’t even indulge in a beer very often.

But the regimen of pills he was given to treat perpetual pain didn’t set well.

“God help you if you ever get sick and you look at food and want to wretch,” he said. “A lot of people underestimate pain.”

He said he asked his own doctor “how do you know I’m not scamming you?” when he sought the certificate that would permit him to use pot medicinally. “I’m sure you get a few bad apples who buffalo their scrips.”

The marijuana works, Mr. Merrill said. It restores his appetite, and there’s relief from pain — common comments from those who use medicinal pot.

Trouble arrived, however, when he went to Derby and tried to buy a revolver from Mr. O’s and was asked to fill out the form required when buying a gun.

“I checked off that I didn’t use illegal drugs because I figured it was a health matter,” he said. “It’s between me and my doctor.”

And medicinal use of marijuana is legal in Vermont.

The gun seller told him he couldn’t buy the .38, that he’d been denied with no explanation.

“I thought it was weird. I have no felonies, no hunting or fishing violations,” Mr. Merrill said.

He thought it might be because of his politics. He has testified in favor of Vermont’s medical marijuana bill, and he has a weekly cable show that, as he puts it, “makes fun of local politicians and the CIA.”

After talking to a friend, however, he wondered if the certificate allowing him to use pot for pain might be the problem.

“There is no state law that would prohibit a person who is on the registry from purchasing a firearm,” said Vermont’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Safety Francis Aumand on Tuesday. “There is nothing that prohibits that based on state law.”

Federal law is another matter.

In 2011, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) wrote a letter to “all federal firearms licensees.”

It says that its purpose is to provide guidance since a number of states have passed legislation allowing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

“As you know, federal law…prohibits any person who is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance (as defined in section 102 of the Controlled Substance Act)…from shipping, transporting, receiving or possessing firearms or ammunition,” the letter says. “Marijuana is listed in the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule I controlled substance, and there are no exceptions in federal law for marijuana purportedly used for medicinal purposes, even if such use is sanctioned by state law.

“Therefore, any person who uses or is addicted to marijuana, regardless of whether his or her state has passed legislation authorizing marijuana use for medicinal purposes, is an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance and is prohibited by federal law from possessing firearms or ammunition.”

Medical marijuana users should say yes to question 11 on Form 4473, the letter says.

Form 4473 is the document that must be filled out when a person wants to buy a gun. An untruthful answer to its questions is a crime. Question 11 asks about the person’s criminal history, drug use, citizenship, and more.

Although the letter is now four years old, Boston-based ATF spokesman Christopher Arone said that it’s still in effect.

There have been no changes in policy, he said on Tuesday.

However, he added, people who want to know why they weren’t allowed to buy a gun can, in writing, request an explanation from ATF. The explanation will not be given to the gun seller.

One thing that Mr. Merrill and others wonder is how ATF gets their information.

“I’m not sure how they would know, due to medical privacy,” Mr. Merrill said.

Bob DePino, field coordinator for Gun Owners of Vermont, said he’s long been aware that medical marijuana users are not permitted to buy guns, and he doesn’t approve of that rule. In fact, he doesn’t approve of background checks.

“Medical marijuana is illegal on the federal level,” he said.

Vermonters who are against guns are working at having all federal laws enforced in Vermont, he said. “They’re trying to get all the medical records. If you seek treatment, you are now on that list.”

contact Tena Starr at

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Editor’s Picks pages.  For all the Chronicle’s stories, subscribe:

Print subscription

Annual online subscription

Short-term online subscription


An easy read to fuel those spring dreams


WEB woodchuck gardeningcopyright the Chronicle December 23, 2014

The Woodchuck Returns to Gardening, by Ron Krupp. Published by Whetstone Books. Paperback. 247 pages. $18.

Reviewed by Tena Starr

Yes, it will be months before we see anything besides a Christmas tree that’s green, but it’s never too early to start thinking about spring gardening. Seed catalogues will start arriving in January, and gardeners will pore over them, planning for the coming summer harvest.

The Woodchuck Returns to Gardening is a follow-up to Ron Krupp’s The Woodchuck’s Guide to Gardening, and it has sound advice about seeds. Not surprisingly, Mr. Krupp heavily relies on many of the old standbys that have stood the test of time, such as Provider green beans.

Continue reading


VEC will seek help from FEMA for storm damage


The heavy wet snow that stuck to trees in last week’s big snowstorm has caused power outages to continue throughout the week.   Photos by Tena Starr

The heavy wet snow that stuck to trees in last week’s big snowstorm has caused power outages to continue throughout the week. Photos by Tena Starr

copyright the Chronicle December 17, 2014 

by Tena Starr

Orleans County got off relatively lightly in last week’s big snowstorm. Several towns received a good foot of snow on the night of Tuesday, December 9. And they got it in a hurry.

But the county was not as affected by power outages as other places in Vermont.

By Monday afternoon, the Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC) said that just 260 VEC members were without power. Line crews had repaired more than 35,000 outages since the storm, said spokesman Liz Gamache.

You could call last week’s storm the gift that kept on giving. After the initial mess was cleaned up, utilities warned that the heavy snow could continue to bring down trees and branches, causing more outages. And that’s just what happened.

Continue reading


Debut novel draws page-turning journey


WEB mill horse reviewcopyright the Chronicle November 26, 2014

The Clever Mill Horse, by Jodi Lew-Smith. Paperback. 409 pages. Published by Caspian Press, Hardwick. $16.99

Reviewed by Tena Starr

Jodi Lew-Smith has written a rollicking story here, as unlikely as that seems, given that the plot revolves around securing a patent for a flax-milling machine. I would not, myself, have thought of patent rights as the most gripping subject for a young adult adventure novel.

But it works. The characters are well drawn, for the most part, and the plot has considerable twists and turns.

Continue reading


Governor’s race: County lawmakers lean toward Milne


Scott Milne.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Scott Milne. Photo by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle November 12, 2014

by Tena Starr

If Orleans County’s legislative delegation had its way, Scott Milne would be Vermont’s next governor.

That’s not a surprising decision for the Republicans who represent the county, but as of this week only one of the three Democrats was willing to unequivocally say that he’ll follow tradition and support the candidate who won the popular vote.

Representative Sam Young of Glover said he will vote for Governor Shumlin.

“I think it’s generally a bad precedent if the Legislature starts electing people who didn’t win,” Mr. Young said.

Continue reading