(HOST) Commentator Tom Slayton has been thinking about Town Meeting and the hard choices we sometimes have to make.
(SLAYTON) Town meeting, the time-honored classic participatory town meeting, complete with citizen skepticism, open debate, and a hot lunch at mid-day, is still held in about 150 Vermont towns. It is a beloved institution, though it has been displaced in many larger communities by a more standard election – just voting, no debate.
The new forms are more efficient and allow wider participation, it is said. But something is lost when the old-fashioned, live and unpredictable town meeting is traded in for an election. An old story from Arlington, courtesy of Dorothy Canfield Fisher, illustrates some of the virtues of the time-honored form.
Mrs. Fisher, author of the wonderful children’s book, "Understood Betsy" and several novels for adults, lived most of her life in Arlington, where her family hailed from. In her book,"Vermont Tradition," she joked that she had "lived in Arlington since 1763."
She was attending town meeting there one year almost 100 years ago, when the town was desperately trying to find ways to pay for a new consolidated school. The old one-room "district" schools just wouldn’t prepare Arlington’s young people for the modern world. But the new school seemed horribly expensive, and opponents argued it was more important to fix up the town’s deteriorating bridges. Mrs. Fisher described what happened next:
"Up sprang Patrick Thompson – he had worked his way up to partnership in one of our two grocery stores – we usually saw him in a white apron, selling sugar and tea – we still remember his exact words – ‘We are told that our town cannot afford to keep its bridges safe and also make a decent provision for its children’s education, (Patrick Thompson said) That’s what we are being told. Not one of us here really believes it. We just can’t think of anything to say back.’
"’But suppose it were true – Then I say, if we have to choose, "Let the bridges fall down! What kind of a town would we rather have, fifty years from now? A place where nit-wit folk go back and forth over good bridges? Or a town with brainy well-educated people, capable of holding their own in the modern way of life?
"You know which of those is really wanted by every one of us here. I say, Let the bridges fall down!’"
The school was built, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher later wrote, "It was a turning point in the life of our town."
That’s the kind of tough decision and transformative debate that a live town meeting allows. Now, as we face similar tough decisions, in our state and in our nation, we could do worse than remember the words of Patrick Thompson, who lived in Arlington long ago, as we ask ourselves what kind of a state – and what kind of a nation – we want to build.
And my guess is that some of the best decisions made along those lines will come this week, at old-fashioned town meetings across Vermont.