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Empower Town Meeting, empower democracy: Let’s abolish Australian ballot

By David Van Deusen

Today, March 4, 2014, at Town Meeting, we, as a community, passed a nonbinding advisory resolution requesting that the select board in 2015 place an article on the warned agenda, proposing that we do away with the Australian ballot and return to a traditional, participatory Town Meeting system.

So, I am just getting back up my mountain on this first Tuesday in March and before I contemplate cleaning out my sap buckets, I would like say we had a good Town Meeting this year. Truth is I was skeptical. When I saw the agenda, not much looked like it was heading for a floor vote. Seemed like most of the decisions were to give a couple-three hundred dollars to this or that nonprofit organization. Now don't get me wrong, the little bit we vote to give here or there is important, especially to those folks who need the social services that many of these organizations provide. But at the end of the day real democracy, Vermont democracy, should be more than making a dozen small donations and then going home. And more truth be told, a little into Town Meeting, when it looked like we would be through with the entire agenda by 10 a.m. (which as fate would have it was not the case), I was not thinking this would be one of our more historic Town Meetings in our community's collective memory. But when we got to the last agenda item, "Other Business," I'll be damned if we didn't have some real productive discussion and debate; in fact, among other things, we debated the very nature of our local democratic process.

One thing folks recognized was that of the 1,500 or so residents of Moretown, only 70 of us (give or take) were there on the floor today. Most agreed that a healthy local democracy should be expected to draw the participation of more of our neighbors. But again, if the big vote is giving $1,000 to the Senior Center and $150 to the Boys and Girls Club ... well, let's just say it isn't shocking that not more folks came out and spent their day (or half day in this case) practicing democracy. Many folks at our Town Meeting recognized this problem and some (myself included) questioned if we should do away with the Australian ballot and instead return to Vermont's traditional Town Meeting structure. The traditional Town Meeting structure provides for the right to discuss, debate, amend and vote on the town and school budget from the floor. It allows for us the kind of true participatory democracy which the Green Mountain Boys fought and died for (and which people throughout the world continue to struggle for today).

It allows for people to share ideas, to merge or reject ideas based on the best intention and belief of the many, as gathered together as a true community of peers. This is unlike our present lot (in Moretown) whereby the big decisions, those which cost more than $5,000, are simply put before us as a yes or no question, not open to change and not necessarily decided upon after a meaningful public discourse. Whereas, Vermont traditionally made creative decisions together in Town Meeting, we now sanction or decline the more narrow options put before us, unchangeable and on paper. For me, eliminating the participatory and amendable aspects of local democracy in the name of expedience is no gain at all.

So, after a good discussion, we, as a community, adapted a nonbinding resolution to request that our select board consider placing a binding article on the agenda for next year which would do away with the Australian ballot and instead make all our meaningful decisions on the floor. We have a good select board. Tom Martin has done a great job. Therefore, at the conclusion of this 2014 Town Meeting, I am already looking forward to the 2015 Town Meeting. If we do have this important question before us in a binding manner, we will have much to discuss. For the people of Moretown, people from all political stripes and parties, to come together to revisit the method by which we practice our local democracy is a courageous step forward (and back to our traditional roots).

Now with all proposals and debates, perhaps the majority of you disagree with my enthusiasm for such a change. Perhaps, we will instead heed the arguments and assertions of others that live in these immediate hills and valleys. Perhaps the majority will decide the way we are doing it now is for the best. But, in the true spirit of Town Meeting, I would welcome a conclusion that differs from my views as long as I (and you) have the opportunity to stand up in our Town Hall, make the honorable argument and wield the free opportunity to try (through reason and heart) to win a majority on a principled point of view. That, my friends, win, lose, or draw, is the very essence of the participatory democratic system which I believe in and which I support.

David Van Deusen lives in Moretown.

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