Direct democracy and representative government

By Paul Gillies

Also published in the Brattleboro Reformer, 11/23/2014

Among Vermont’s most cherished institutions is Town Meeting. For years it has been under siege from an unlikely source — administrative efficiency. Officials dream of being able to make the right decisions without the interference of the public, but democracy isn’t efficient. It depends on the sharing of power. An “X” in one box or another is a poor substitute for a public debate over an issue. Taking an hour to vote is far more convenient than having to attend a meeting, and turnout is always twice to three times the size of the voters at a town meeting (an argument hard to dismiss).

But if democracy is reduced to casting ballots in elections of officials and the adoption of budgets and bond issues, something important has been lost: the voters’ voice. The power of the electorate has been narrowed into a set of questions, with no opportunity for the voters to participate in the wording of the questions. That’s the great benefit of a town meeting, where by amending the article as warned, the voters can articulate what they want to be done, refining action and defining authority. But town meeting is a system for small towns. It becomes less legitimate when the population grows too large to fit into one room.

Brattleboro, on paper, is the most progressive municipality in Vermont. Its charter, creating Vermont’s only representative town meeting system, was one of the late Robert Gannett’s greatest legacies, as it maturely dealt with the problem of how to govern a larger town and retain Town Meeting. As a counterweight to the ceding of power of the voters to representatives, the charter guarantees powers of initiative, referendum, and recall to the voters.

While Vermont does not have home rule in a constitutional sense, the legislature has been respectful of new ideas about governance through the town charter adoption and amendment process. This largesse has allowed the towns to become the incubation chambers for experimental ideas that have later become general law. Brattleboro’s model is now available, even without the adoption of a charter, through a law that applies to every municipality.

Brattleboro Common Sense has promoted charter amendments to broaden the initiative process, so that voters can propose ordinances, and the referendum process, so that a broader range of decisions of the Selectboard or the Representative Town Meeting can be exported to a direct vote of the electorate, if there are sufficient signatures on a petition. The ordinance proposal is restorative, reacting to the town’s refusal to consider some petitions in recent years, among other actions that appear to be directed at keeping the people at bay, promoting representative power over democratic involvement.

These amendments ensure that voters have the clear authority to propose legislation and keep the town from interfering with those proposals. The proposals urge direct votes on allowing more time to file petitions for referenda; paid voting leave; and changing Town Meeting to the day of the General Election to increase turnout.

When an issue engenders wide public discussion, when the decision of the representatives causes concern among those affected by it, why shouldn’t the power to decide be returnable to the people? That’s the simple idea at the heart of the latest proposals for amendment. Let the people decide the hard issues.

Emerson wrote that everybody is always smarter than anybody. The Brattleboro charter has institutionalized that thought. It is a living document, and it needs to be fertilized and nurtured from time to time with new ideas and refinements of the sound framework of the underlying document.

Paul Gillies is a former Deputy of State and a Montpelier attorney who advises Brattleboro Common Sense.

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