Town Meeting in Vermont: Only after Voting Do I Dive into Dessert

Burnham Hall in Lincoln, empty this moment, will be packed for Town Meeting on Monday night.
Burnham Hall in Lincoln, empty this moment, will be packed for Town Meeting on Monday night.

Every so often, politicians on the campaign trail will hold something they call a “town meeting.” They’ll round up a hundred of the locals and answer questions — though the questions tend to be carefully scripted and there are TV cameras present to capture the candidate’s carefully scripted responses. These town meetings are nothing like a real Vermont town meeting, our annual exercise in legislative self-determination. At a real town meeting, we actually govern. We make the decisions that affect our lives 24/7.

Tomorrow night we will be holding our town meeting here in Lincoln, and my sense is that there are national politicians who could learn a bit from spending a few minutes with us — and by “us,” I mean “Vermonters.” Lincoln has no monopoly on the scale, the focus, and the brownies that mark an authentic town meeting in the Green Mountains.

And scale is key here in Vermont. We’ll probably have about 150 people in Burnham Hall tomorrow night. In other words, we know each other. We see each other at the general store, we see each other at the school, and we see each other at the Little League baseball field. We know each other and that scale lends itself to civility. Oh, there may be a shouting match. To be honest, I always hope one of us unleashes his or her inner crazy person for a few minutes. It makes for great theater.

But we’ll argue and then move on — and by “move on,” I mean figuratively. Not literally. It’s rare for Town Meeting to actually drive someone away. It’s probably happened. But in my experience, it takes considerably more than a debate about a backhoe to cause someone to pull up stakes and leave town.

This year we will have one potentially awkward moment. Both of the two Vermont House representatives visiting us will be from Bristol, and one defeated the Lincoln incumbent. But we will get past even that, because we live together in the same county. The ties that bind us at the gym or the supermarket transcend village (and partisan) politics on this scale.

We will also debate a new or renovated building for our town offices. The town office sits across the street from my house, and I can see it from my desk where I write. I am going to lobby that we replace it with an underground bunker.

Moreover, our problems are manageable. Sure, some of our problems are chronic. (Exhibit A? Property taxes and school funding.) But we have specific objectives going in each year, and that leads to a rapier-like focus. We work from that Town Meeting Bible we call the “warning,” and we understand precisely what we are going to discuss. We know the issues. We have a moderator who makes sure that everything we say is “germane.” There is nothing in the world a person can do that is more humiliating than to stand up at town meeting and say something that is not “germane.” To this day, I am confident, Anthony Weiner wakes up every morning relieved that he was merely sexting by mistake on Twitter, and not babbling incoherently at town meeting.

Finally, there are the crème de menthe brownies. And the apple pie bars. And the peanut butter chocolate kiss cookies. There is the flourless chocolate cake. On the Tuesday after town meeting, we return to Burnham Hall to use paper ballots to elect our local officials and vote on the high school budget. Burnham is right across the street from the Lincoln General Store — a store that bakes the sorts of desserts that are worth every single calorie. It’s an important detour on the road to democracy.

For years our nation has rued the reality that not enough people vote. Trust me, you trot out crème de menthe brownies and apple pie bars, and people vote. We will show up to vote on those issues that matter to us greatly, such as the high school budget, and we will show up to vote on those issues that matter a little bit less — the uncontested town races for delinquent tax collector and grand juror.

And while one would think I would view those treats as the best part of town meeting, one would be wrong. The best part? The people. I am never more proud as a Vermonter than during town meeting. Only after voting — only then — do I dive headfirst into dessert.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on March 1, 2015. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives in May.)

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Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.