Political scientist charts the health of town meeting

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(Host) How democratic is the traditional town meeting? In the town of Newbury yesterday, one man was in pursuit of the answer. Amid the votes and the back-and-forth discussion, he was collecting statistics and watching the behavior.

VPR’s Betty Smith reports:

(Smith) UVM political science professor Frank Bryan gave the meeting fairly high marks. He was there collecting information to determine just how democratic this institution is in this town. Bryan and his students have been attending town meetings in Vermont for this purpose since 1969. This year they attended 42 town meetings across the state.

He measures attendance, how many people come, how many people speak, how much conflict there is, and how many women attend, among other statistics. Bryan’s data not only provides a profile of individual town meeting, it also reveals trends.

(Bryan) “Couple of things. Number one, attendance has been going down. One of the reasons however for that – town size has been increasing and there’s an inverse relationship between the size of the town and the percentage of taxpayers that go to town meeting. So democracy is best in small towns. I think most people know that, but now we can show it to be true in explicit ways.”

(Smith) Other trends Bryan has documented includes greater verbal participation, and increased participation by women. The data is about to be published, and Bryan hopes it will contribute to the study of town meeting by future generations. As for Tuesday’s meeting, Bryan says it was pretty typical.

(Bryan) “About the same number of people were here. Women outnumbered the men by some. I haven’t done the tallies yet, but by some significant degree here. Otherwise, pretty normal. There was one little spat that we had involving the zoning, but other than that it was pretty benign. A normal town meeting.”

(Smith) And it was a normal town meeting with a lively floor debate:

(Speaker from the floor) “Because he’s not a flatlander, he was not accepted. That’s what we bring in here. You mean the past-” (Sound of the gavel, assembled voters groaning)
(Moderator) “Gentlemen please.”
(Speaker) “What, you don’t want us to – to hear this?
(Moderator) “Can I please ask you that you address your remarks to the moderator?”
(Speaker) “I was looking at you!” (Sound of laughter in the room.)

(Smith) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Betty Smith in Newbury.

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