Town Meeting: Now more than ever
Adam Caira / Staff Photo
Lyn Kasvinsky of Waterbury Center speaks in support of the Municipal Civic Complex project at the start of the Waterbury town meeting at Thatcher Brook School in Waterbury. Kasvinsky, a grandmother and “big proponent” of the library, expressed her concerns about the younger generation of Waterbury residents. “All everyone was talking about was the development itself and the cost” said Kasvinsky about her decision to speak during the discussion. “It has to be about more than taxes, it has to be.”
The chairs are stacked and town meeting is done for another year. And like every year, some of us are proud of a productive meeting, while others wonder why we put ourselves through this misery.
What’s different this year is emerging new research that puts our venerable process in a new light. While town meeting critics demand that we ditch the gavel and switch to the ballot box, communities across America are switching from “just voting” to more deliberative, inclusive processes akin to our town meetings. It’s being called “a quiet revolution in municipal leadership.” What’s going on?
Join the 21st century
Years ago, I recall UVM political science professor Frank Bryan predicting that changes in technology and energy use were going to allow Americans to re-inhabit our communities. He said that if we got rid of town meeting today, we’d just have to reinvent it in 50 years. The only way he was wrong was the timing. It’s happening today.
There are now entire institutes dedicated to deliberative democracy. Check out the Center for Democratic Deliberation at Penn State, the Center for Public Deliberation (Colorado State), or the Institute for Civic Discourse (Kansas State) just to name a few — none of which existed 10 years ago.
Research has shown that voting is important, but it’s not enough; quantity must not replace quality. A quick look at 2012 trainings reveals the theme. At the National League of Cities conference, fully one-third of training dealt with “public engagement.” The International City/County Management Association featured an entire track on “engaging citizens”; a third of their pre-event workshops highlighted public participation. And the 2012 theme of the American Society for Public Administration? “Redefining Public Service through Civic Engagement.”
Municipal managers and academic leaders are finding that deliberation — inclusive, empowered citizen discussions — must be at the heart of our decision making. Ironically, it’s those who argue that town meeting is a “relic” and should be replaced with a voting booth who need to join the 21st century.
It’s easy for experienced policy makers to imagine they have “the answer.” But given recent polls showing Congress with a 9 percent approval rating and a whopping 89 percent of Americans who don’t trust government to do what’s right, we have to ask: How’s that elite wisdom thing working out for ya?
Instead of waiting for answers to descend from above, we are in the midst of a new paradigm of “emergent” change. Society-wide, we are becoming accustomed to thinking like a “wiki.” We’ve been living in the open source revolution, with exponentially more information available free for public use. We’re seeing a dramatic shift in citizens’ expectations and capacities. Perhaps we are now worse-than-ever at being governed; but we are exceptionally well poised for self-governance.
Structures that allow citizens to frame issues and craft collaborative solutions are a superb match of today’s skills and today’s complex problems. We need everyone’s creative thinking, and we desperately need lots and lots of local solutions. As I’ve heard scientists say about climate change: There will be no silver bullet; only silver buckshot.
Town meeting is a model
New deliberative models are popping up all over the U.S. You might be surprised how much they’ve learned from town meeting. For instance:
“Just voting” is the recipe for replacing town meeting with Australian ballot. It’s also the way two dozen American states run their initiative and referendum systems, allowing voters to create public policy through ballot measures. But these processes lack any built-in forum for citizen discussion and amendment. Instead, special-interest campaigns often result in an ill-informed, polarized electorate, multiple re-votes, and unsustainable nonsolutions. What to do? The Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review, created in 2011, is an effort to make the initiative process more like a town meeting — to strengthen decisions by incorporating citizen deliberation. Here, a random sample of citizens hears from experts and advocates, then deliberates on the merits of the issues. Oregon values the resulting “citizens’ statement” so highly that they distribute it to every voting household in the state.
An innovative technique called Participatory Budgeting has seen a rapid rise in recent years, and is now used in more than 1,200 cities and towns across the globe, including eight districts in New York City and four wards in Chicago. Here, citizens (not elected officials) come face-to-face to create and make binding decisions about discretionary funding in their local budgets. A new wave of engaged citizen-leadership is emerging through PB. The United Nations has named PB a “good governance practice” — and its local, deliberative power structure is modeled on the New England town meeting.
It Only Seems Like Magic
Many people have tried to describe that near-magical quality that occurs in a community that works well together. In these communities, we are likely to stop and help a driver out of a ditch whether we know him or not. We can respect a neighbor, even if we may not like her. We see volunteerism, civic engagement, and trust. This kind of “social capital” is notoriously difficult to create, but research suggests that it is built over time through repeated, long-term connections. It is rarely created for its own sake, nor is it created simply through “social” interaction, but more often through community collaboration on important, meaningful work.
It looks like the way we govern ourselves, year-in and year-out for 300-plus years, may have an effect on social capital. Five of the six New England states, the only places in America where town meeting is fully practiced, rank consistently in the top ten for civil society.
Citizen engagement, and the social capital it helps build, are more than just “feel-good” concepts. For instance:
It strengthens our economy. A 2011 report the National Conference on Citizenship reported a correlation between citizen engagement and community resilience against unemployment.
It helps us respond to crises. As Irene and Sandy showed, a safe community is one rich in qualities like leadership, volunteerism, and collaboration.
It changes us personally — for the better. People who have engaged in empowered deliberations are statistically more likely to vote; and deliberations often increase our ability to see others’ points of view, be open to new information, and imagine new solutions.
Town Meeting Can Be Improved
Perhaps, as is so often the case with people who disagree bitterly, supporters and detractors of town meeting are actually in alignment. That is, we share common goals — in this case, wanting more citizens to take more responsibility in our democracy. Where we disagree is on how to get there. But perhaps we can agree on some improvements.
Let’s agree: Town meeting was never intended to be the only time we discuss issues during the year. Leaders should invite citizens early and often, to help frame issues and participate “upstream” of decision-making. Voters should follow issues and participate regularly.
Let’s agree: Seven o’clock meetings need a make-over. Our year-long processes that lead up to town meeting – select boards, school boards, planning and conservations commissions, and many others — should engage citizens creatively. These can feature small-group living room dialogues; they can include hands-on field trips. They can include websites, Front Porch Forum, and explore a growing number of tools that allow communities to deliberate (non-anonymously) online.
Let’s agree: Some towns may have grown too large for town meeting. If so, they can consider the Brattleboro model of “representative town meeting” (used widely in Massachusetts and even Switzerland). Here, 150 or so citizens are elected to deliberate on the issues as a town “parliament.” Australian ballot is not the only answer.
Let’s agree: Civility at town meeting is critical. Town moderators should take advantage of trainings to help ensure that all voices are respected, and citizens should model neighborly honesty and grace. In general, they do.
Let’s agree: When towns make civil, forward progress, it’s important. It should be celebrated in the news, and publicized even more than those rare instances when communities lose their cool.
Let’s agree: Town meeting isn’t perfect. But it’s very far from all-bad. Let’s celebrate what we have, and work to make it better.
Susan Clark is Town Moderator of Middlesex. She is the co-author of “Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home,” and “All Those In Favor: Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community.”