Direct Democracy, Previewed: This Year’s Town Meeting Day

By HATTIE LEFAVOUR

BENJY RENTON
Middlebury Town Offices on Court St. where elections will be held on Tuesday, March 5.

MIDDLEBURY – In the 1800s, Middlebury residents faced a problem: pig protocol. Should local pigs be allowed to freely roam the streets? Would it be more beneficial to keep all of them fenced in? Unable to come to a conclusion, those residents did the same thing Vermonters will do next month: they took the issue to that year’s Town Meeting. 

Held annually for over 200 years, the meeting is a rare holdout of direct democracy designed to allow the voices of Middlebury to be heard on the issues that affect them, their families and their jobs. Although every town in Vermont now holds their own meeting, the first was held in Bennington in 1762, making the tradition older than the state itself (VT was created in 1791.). 

The meetings are cornerstones of the town’s sense of community, allowing its residents to come together to tackle civic issues. Vermont government employees even get a holiday to attend, and the state grants students over 18 the right to skip school if necessary in order to participate. In fact, many public schools give their students a day off for Town Meeting Day. 

So, how does it work? The meeting takes place in two parts. The first is a floor meeting, which features town-wide discourse that gives residents the opportunity to voice their opinions on proposed articles and issues facing the town. This is where most of the action takes place. This year’s floor meeting will be held on Monday, March 4 at 7 p.m. in the Middlebury Union High School auditorium. Anyone registered to vote with a Middlebury address is encouraged to attend, speak and vote. 

This includes any Middlebury College student who is registered in Vermont.

Alexander Giles ’21, who studied the floor meeting’s style of government in the 2019 Winter Term class “Democracy, Deliberation and Global Citizenship,” believes it’s an invaluable process. “Direct democracy still has great value in localized settings,” Giles told The Campus. “It’s a great example of bringing the community together in deliberation.”

The second part of the town meeting is the Australian Ballot. Separate from the floor meeting, this is a specific way to vote on proposed articles and mirrors a traditional voting process. The Australian Ballot will take place the following day on Tuesday, March 5 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the town offices at 77 Main St., and any Middlebury voter is welcome to stop in to cast a vote.

Although the floor meeting is more involved, the Australian Ballot process offers another opportunity for political engagement as it often takes on citizen-led initiatives and allows every vote to have an impact in such a small election. The Campus spoke to Brian Carpenter, the Chair of the Middlebury Selectboard (a team of seven elected at the meetings to collaborate on the town’s issues throughout the year), about the process. Carpenter expressed that he thinks these votes are particularly valuable. 

“Votes will count pretty significantly based on the average turnout,” Carpenter said. “It’s an opportunity to be heard and either affirm or redirect priorities within the town.”

But if not pigs, then what issues are going to be taken on during this year’s meeting? As usual, there are plans to vote on a town budget for the upcoming year. There will also be a vote to reelect three members of the Middlebury Selectboard. 

Beyond the meeting’s typical business, though, this year’s floor meeting agenda also includes a vote to allocate funds toward improving the Memorial Sports Center and purchasing new town vehicles, along with other topics to be proposed by residents.

The Australian Ballot is particularly compelling this year, and primarily addresses environmental concerns.

The Middlebury College Sunday Night Environmental Group, or SNEG, has been vocal in encouraging students to turn out on March 5 to support these measures. “Let your voice be heard — help Middlebury take the steps necessary in creating a cleaner, better future for all,” read a post on the group’s Facebook page.

The vote will address an initiative to ban plastic bags from all Middlebury businesses, which has been spearheaded by Middlebury student Amelia Miller ’20 and town resident Amy McAninch.

The ballot will also include a vote to advise the Selectboard to write to the Vermont state leadership in support of the 350VT Climate Solutions Resolution. This act would halt the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and aim to achieve 90 percent renewable energy by 2050 in an equitable fashion. Voters will also decide whether the town of Middlebury should commit to efforts to install solar panels on town and school buildings, encourage landowners to implement carbon-responsible practices and appropriate $3,000 to Habitat for Humanity of Addison County to bolster affordable housing. These Articles will all be on the ballot on March 5.

Selectboard Chair Brian Carpenter encouraged any eligible Middlebury students to participate. “There are issues that I believe many of them are passionate about,” he said. “And it’s something quite unique about Vermont.”

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