An annual Vermont tradition occurs on the first Tuesday of March: Town Meeting. It is actually a state holiday; many businesses and all schools and state offices close for the day. This year, as every year since I returned from the Marine Corps, I make the trek from graduate college to home to participate. While I have resided in different towns in recent years, Guildhall, the county seat of Essex in the Northeastern portion of the state, is still home, a permanent fixture in my life.
In the midafternoon I leave Milton, a small town just north of Burlington, Vermont’s bustling Metropolis of 40,000. I travel east along U.S. Route 2, a familiar route which cuts across the spine of the state, the Green Mountains. The sun is bright off the snow, and the mountains create beckoning shadows, shadows in which evening’s darkness will continue to hide for a few brief hours more. Traffic is light. In the winter, as long as one is away from the ski areas, the vacationers which plague the entire state in the warmer months are for the most part absent. It is one of the few blessings of our bitter winters.
After passing through St. Johnsbury, named in honor of St. Jean de Crévecoeur. Route 2 becomes even more barren. I am now well into the part of Vermont known as the Northeast Kingdom. It is heavily wooded with few houses, and the towns are small and scattered. I don’t see this as a drawback. To me, this is the essence of Vermont, why I still live in a state which sends Bernie Sanders to Congress. One advantage to being in a less populated area is that the roads are actually a little better here, a benefit of having fewer people and less traffic than the rest of Vermont. Soon, around 5:00 P.M., I come into the Essex County scat, Guildhall, many of whose 160 registered voters, out of a population of about 300, are preparing for town meeting at 7:00 P.M. Two-and-one-half hours after leaving Milton, I arrive at my father’s house. I eat supper by the woodstove, its heat quite welcome and penetrating. I am reluctant to perform my civic duty, feeling quite content by the stove at this point. However, this is still a free state and I am still a free man. Duty and tradition die hard, especially in the mountains of Vermont, even among adopted Vermonters such as myself. However much Montpelier and Washington would like us to surrender even this power, we are more determined than ever to hold onto it.
I leave for the meeting a few minutes after my father, who is the chairman of the board of selectmen and must arrive early. I leave for the town hall soon after and arrive a few minutes before the meeting starts. The meeting is held in the town hall, known as the Guild Hall. Built in 1794, it has been in constant use ever since, with a few minor renovations which have not affected the building’s appearance of age.
After staking my claim to one of the hard wooden chairs for the night, I look around. In the front of the room is a stage; directly in front of that is a long table behind which sit the various town officers: the board of selectmen, the town clerk, and justices of the peace who will count the votes and cheek people off as they approach the table to cast their ballots. To the left is a fireplace, rarely used. On the mantle is an old clock with the correct time, and above that is a copy of a famous painting of George Washington. The only picture of a President visible is an old photo of Dwight Eisenhower. On another wall is a large, old wooden display board with the battle honor roll from the town. At the top is the list of names from the Civil War, and below are names from the Great War. Nothing more recent. The moderator, Allen Hodgdon (who is also a side, or lay judge for the county) calls the meeting to order. He announces that this is the 211th annual Guildhall Town Meeting and immediately moves to the first order of business, the election of the town officers. This is the core of small-town politics and has been the center of many bitter fights. Tonight is no exception, though the fireworks are subdued. Vermonters are known for being taciturn and reserved, and this is often true even in disagreements.
Two men were nominated for the position. The incumbent, a man with 25 years’ service to the town, has been defeated for Selectman only once, and that was by my father nine years ago. In tonight’s election he takes nothing for granted, as he did that night, for he has called all the troops out. People who have not been to Town Meeting in years conic out of the woodwork to support the incumbent, no doubt at his request. Most of these people leave soon after this first vote, their task being done.
There is no debate or discussion. People quietly write their choice on their ballot and file up to the front of the room. There they vote by depositing their slip into a wooden box while their name is carefully checked off a list by several Justices of the Peace.
While the votes are laboriously counted and recounted, people mill about, some snacking on food in an anteroom which has been prepared for a charity fundraiser being conducted for the Boy Scouts or some other all-too-wholesome cause. Soon, the moderator counts the votes. Forty-one for the incumbent selectman, 28 for the challenger. It will be the most votes east all evening, and is 15 more votes than had been cast for all presidential candidates combined during the primary voting all day.
Several people speculate privately that the challenger lost because of what seems to be the bane of all modern politics: “negative campaigning,” blaming his opponent for all the ills of the town and arguing that only he could correct those ills. Some would merely call that speaking about his opponent’s record, but of course that depends entirely on whom one is supporting. Others say he lost because he failed to get his supporters to the Town Meeting to vote.
The only other contest of the evening was for tax collector. The incumbent of many years was defeated by an even wider margin. The incumbent received only 18 votes. After this contest, all the other elected offices are filled with little fanfare or discussion.
After the election of the Town Officers, the next item is the budget. Of interest is a debate over the money appropriated for streetlights. The sum was $2,000. At first it may not seem like much to argue about, but there have been $50 items in the town budget which have caused heated debate. The uncharitable might say that fights are always the bitterest when the stakes are the lowest. I would respond by saying that at least here the voters get to say how their money is spent, unlike in the state or federal budgets or even in towns in those states where there is no town meeting.
The controversy was over who benefited from the streetlights. The majority of the lights are located in Guildhall itself, around the town common. Most residents of Guildhall, however, like most rural towns, are scattered throughout the township on country roads, which have no streetlights at all. Most of the people would not want them anyway. A few streetlights are at intersections, but that is the extent of the town’s public lighting. After much debate among a few interested parties—the rest of us wishing they would move on—it was decided that streetlights in the village did benefit the town as a whole by illuminating a rather sharp corner as well as showing off and protecting the town and county buildings. The rest of the budget was subjected to scrutiny as well, but did not cause such interesting debate as the streetlight controversy.
Toward the end of the meeting, two items on the warning, seemingly minor and unconnected at first, caused a furor that I can only describe as hopeful. The first item was a proposal to elect town officers by “Australian ballot.” The second item concerned a possible bicycle and walking path along Route 102. To many, the objection to “Australian ballots” will be immediately evident. It has been called the death knell of active voter participation and of town meetings in many communities. The election of town officers is what draws the most people to the town meeting; without it, voter turnout would be lower than it is already. This was pointed out by many people, people who obviously cared about the institution of town meeting, and when the votes were cast, the vast majority of us voted against expedience and went with tradition.
The second item I mentioned concerned a bike path to be put along Route 102, the main highway through the town. The path was to be made with state and federal funds. Just why the federal government is spending money on bike paths is unclear. Perhaps this is Vermont’s reward for its cowardly surrender to the Department of Transportation on the seatbelt issue several years ago, in contrast to neighboring New Hampshire, which still keeps its dignity to this day by not passing a mandatory seatbelt law. In any ease, all the town was being asked to do was give its nod to the study being done on the bike path. When it would be done, or whether the town would have to contribute money, was not specified. The whole thing seemed absurd, especially federal funds toward such a project. Guildhall decided that they would give no aid nor nod of approval to this project. It could end at the town line and continue on the other side for all we cared, though in actuality the path, if approved by the state, would probably be completed no matter what we decided. The town was still going to try to maintain some kind of control, or at least not cooperate while Montpelier and Washington decided what our roads would look like. Just as with the “Australian ballot” question, the voters agreed to keep as much direct power as possible, even in a seemingly minor matter.
The meeting ends around 11:00 P.M., and home I will go to sit again by the woodstove with my father and aunt. We discuss the events of the evening and enjoy the heat of the stove. I will not go back to the Burlington area until the next morning, for the abundance of moose in northern Vermont has made night driving especially dangerous. Not anxious to leave, I am glad for this chance to sit and reflect, still a citizen and free, despite the best efforts of politicians and bureaucrats.