Everything You Need To Know About Town Meeting

Feb 25, 2014

The first Tuesday in March has special meaning in Vermont. It marks Town Meeting Day, when communities gather to participate in a tradition with roots in the beginnings of American democracy. It is self-governance at its purest, and Vermont towns have charted their courses and balanced their budgets this way since the 1800s.

While certain customs have been established for more than a century — think potlucks and knitting circles — town meetings can still be messy and unpredictable. To learn more about how the process works, and which issues are dividing voters this year, we present VPR’s guide to Town Meeting Day 2014.

How it works

Town Meeting Day in small towns is one of the most direct forms of democracy in the world. Residents gather at a common meeting place and vote by voice, hand or paper ballot on items from school budget to local gun control measures.

The day's proceedings are governed by Robert’s Rules of Order, and the first order of business at any town meeting is the election of a moderator. This person operates the meeting and must know Robert’s Rules well. The moderator is also responsible for calling the results of a vote.

Voting at town meeting can happen in four ways:

  • Voice vote: The moderator poses a “yes” or “nay” question about a ballot item and then all in favor say “aye” and all opposed say “nay” – the larger group, as judged by the moderator, wins the vote.
  • Show of hands: This works just like a voice vote, but instead of saying “aye” or “nay,” residents raise their hands or stand to indicate their position.
  • Paper ballot: If enough residents request it, a vote must be held by paper ballot. This is not to be confused with Australian ballot. In a paper ballot vote, the moderator poses the question and residents write their answer (yes, no or a candidate's name) on slips of blank paper.
  • Australian ballot: This is the normal form of voting for the state’s larger municipalities such as Burlington and Montpelier. On an Australian ballot, voters mark their votes on a printed list of items and submit their ballot. There is no moderator in an Australian ballot election.

Why It's Special

Town Meeting is the one day of the year when regular Vermonters can assume the role of legislators, says Frank Bryan, a leading authority on town meeting as a Vermont institution and the author of Real Democracy: The New England Tradition And How It Works. 

"Most Vermonters — all Vermonters, if they want to ... can be a participant in the democratic process that 95 percent of Americans can only dream about," says Bryan, who is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Vermont. "You can't do this in Pittsburgh and in Buffalo, or San Francisco, even. You can't do it. You can't be a legislator and amend from the floor and change policy in real time."

"There's a sense of community and a sense of togetherness that we have here," says Susan Clark, a co-author, with Bryan, of All Those In Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community. "There's a fabric ... Town Meeting has created a culture. Just the way Colorado has a cowboy culture, we have a Town Meeting culture. And it's something that we need to recognize and we need to feed. Otherwise, it will go away."

Issues To Follow

School budgets: Town Meeting Day is when most Vermont communities vote on their school budgets, since schools are paid for by property taxes. This is almost always a contentious issue as communities balance quality of education, schools costs, and concerns about higher taxes. This year, Gov. Peter Shumlin called on school boards to bring education costs down. Some school officials voiced frustration with the comments, saying that districts in the state have been forced to make cuts for years while being required by new policy to offer more resources to students.

Montpelier mayor’s race: Montpelier Mayor John Hollar was in a public tiff with (now former) city employee Gwendolyn Hallsmith over her advocacy for a public bank. Hallsmith was fired from her job and is now running against Hollar, who lobbies for large banks in his day job at Downs Rachlin Martin.

State Bank: Voters in at least 20 towns will consider a resolution calling on lawmakers to create a public bank, which would use state funds currently deposited out of state to finance energy, transportation and other projects.  Supporters say a state bank would create revenue and allow the state to better utilize its money. Opponents say its unclear whether a state bank would be profitable and the risk is too great.

Burlington gun control measures: Burlington voters will vote on perhaps the most controversial issue in the state on town meeting day. The city council approved three ordinances for public vote in the fall. They would:

  • Give police power to seize guns when there is reasonable suspicion of domestic violence
  • Ban firearms on the property of institutions where liquor is served
  • Require all guns to be under lock and key when not in possession of their owner.

​Critics of the Burlington proposals say they are in direct contradiction of a law known informally as the "Sportsmen's Bill of Rights" that prohibits municipalities from making laws that limit gun rights. The city is seeking an exception to this law from the Legislature, but critics say legislative approval would set a dangerous precedent for gun rights in Vermont.

Cutting elected positions: Over time, some elected municipal offices have become antiquated or obsolete, and town voters have opted to remove them. This year, some towns are considering removing auditor and lister positions as those jobs become increasingly complicated. Officials are hoping instead to hire outside professional contractors or make these jobs appointed positions.

Construction: Some towns, like Mount Holly and Cabot, are voting on funding for new facilities or other costly projects. In essence, these ballot items are a way for town administrators to ask for money from the taxpayers for a given project.

Town Meeting On Twitter

No matter where you live, you can use the hashtag #TMDVT see live updates, photos, and results and share your own experience of town meeting.