(NEW: See a video excerp
t from the March 6 Bradford town meeting).
On the way from North Carolina to Bradford, Vermont, for its March 6, 2012 town meting, my wife and I detoured to Gettysburg, a sacred place in America’s history. Standing near where President Lincoln spoke, his words, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth" evoked new meaning. I was about to witness in Bradford some part of what Lincoln meant by “of the people, by the people, for the people” – self-government.
A large sign on the door to the Bradford Academy urged people to vote – It is Super Tuesday.
Caption: Entry to the Bradford Academy building. Its attractively renovated auditorium hosted the town meeting.
Larry Coffin, the about-to-retire Moderator, introduced my wife and me to the assemblage, about 150 people, mentioning by way of explanation, that the Bradford town meeting has now been described in two books
, “both about bees”, and that I was there to do some research on organizational dynamics.
This, the 239th meeting, started promptly at 9AM. As has been the custom for many years, all rose for the Salute to the flag, hands over hearts. Quoting from last year’s minutes: “(The Moderator) asked for a moment of silence in memory of those in our community who passed away last year and in honor of those who serve our Community, State and Nation by placing themselves in harm’s way and to acknowledge the exercise in Democracy
we are about to undertake. The Girl Scouts led the Pledge of Allegiance.”
In Larry’s 40th year as Moderator (1971 – 2012), he passed the gavel to a newly elected Moderator, Mark Johnson, a retired elementary school principal and until recently the manager of the Village Store.
The Moderator receives a stipend of $100 for the year, so this is more in the volunteer spirit than with making a profit. (I observed an ethos in this community of doing for oneself and others rather than expecting someone else to do it. One annual report cites a neighbor who takes in or puts up at a motel, at his own expense, the few homeless in Bradford).
The moderator is elected annually. Here is what Larry says about town meetings and the role of the Moderator:
“Town meetings remain one of the best examples of participatory democracy in the world. It is within the confines of public debate that voters get to thrash out, face to face, issues facing the town’s government.” The town meeting “operates under a combination of Roberts, Vermont state law and our own traditional rules of procedure. As moderator I have always felt it is my responsibility to help a voter who is unsure of the proper way to bring a motion before the assembly. If there are any decisions of the moderator that a voter wishes to appeal, the right to do so exists.“
I had been under the assumption that the moderator has no vote. To the contrary, I quote Larry again: "It is not correct to say that the moderator has no vote, for, as with most presiding officers, he may vote only when his vote makes a difference in a divison of the house (hand, or standing). In that case he can vote to break or make a tie. He can also vote in a ballot vote."
During breaks in the meeting, several people introduced themselves, curious about us flatlanders and obviously proud of their town and way of life. In response to my wife's question about whether the town meeting concept could work in a diverse community, say like Durham with its split black and white populations, a Bradford citizen observed: “Each town is different.”( In other words, the concept can work if people are willing to subordinate individual agendas to the greater good.) I noted a pithiness of speech time and again during the meeting as people offered comments, asked questions and made motions. The orotund would not fare well in Bradford.
Robert Miller (Larry's former student) and Chair of the Selectboard) recognized, with a plaque, Larry's historic years of service and contributions to “participatory democracy.” Mr. Miller told the assembly that Larry as moderator was just the way he was as a teacher: “fair and respectful”. (Larry taught Social Studies in Bradford for 42 years.)
Following several questions about the annual reports – questions that revealed a close reading and understanding of what may be missing or in error – the group moved on to the business of the day.
: Two candidates are running for a Selectman’s seat, Randy Moore and Bob Wing. Each candidate gave a brief statement on why he is interested in the job and his qualifications. Randy minced no words. Speaking from the back of the auditorium he indicated the selectmen in the front and said: “There isn’t anyone up there I can’t get along with!”
The election proceeded and all got in line. Each voter has a paper ballot, marks his or her choice of name on paper; checks in at registry desk and then drops paper slip in a ballot box.
Caption: Voters line up to cast their ballot for the selectman of their choice. The Ballot box is on the far right. Two monitors stand by the box. Behind, on the stage, is where the selectmen sit during the meeting.
Article 4: “To see what sum of money the town will vote for General Fund purposes for the year 2012, and to vote to determine the time and manner of collecting monies for General Fund and Town Highway purposes.” $854, 993.00 is approved for the General Fund. Discussion reveals frustration with the auditors because the size of the expected surplus remains nebulous; 2011’s audit is not complete. One voice calls out: “Fire ‘em!” “We did”, responds a selectman.
In the course of the meeting, each of the articles was read out and discussed, fielding pointed questions from various corners. Most questions get good answers; usually someone rises and explains, with specifics, why the money should be distributed to a service and what it does for Bradford. Voice votes pass most of the articles, The Ayes have it. Good humor prevails.
Article 9: Shall the town appropriate $5,000 for the Bradford Conservation Fund? got a different response. One person asked matter-of-factly, “Why are we giving this group money; they’ll use it to take property off our tax rolls!" Murmurs of assent. One or two spoke in defense of this appropriation. The voice vote was too close to call. Larry offered to count.
Caption: Larry Coffin in the distant background in black sweater counts the hands.
65 Ayes, 69 Nays, the motion fails.
Larry told me that sometimes an item’s passage depends on who is asking. For example, one less than popular person had a good idea for a different way of voting – it made sense, but it did not pass. Larry attributed that failure to an abrasive personality.
Another case, a youngish progressive man got a well-regarded businessman to make a motion against nuclear waste being trucked, on the Interstate, past the town. That motion passed. Had the young man offered it, it might not.
To me, many of the questioners were well informed. Also, those speaking for or against a motion said their well-reasoned piece with brevity and sat down. Had someone spoken up for the Conservation Fund – showing that in the long run its work was positive for the tax base, it might have passed. The Conservation Commission
which, holds the Conservation Fund, appears to be a well-organized group, so the lack of an articulate response may have been atypical.
Two agencies indicated they were late with their requests – had failed to follow the rules - and asked for their allocation from the floor. While there was general sympathy for the groups, getting them the money was not easy within the confines of the town meeting. And, there was some grumbling about a group's failing to follow the process when others had.
It is invariably best for a local citizen to explain – in the bee world, to perform a “waggle dance” - how a cooperative, multi-town service benefits Bradford. For example: Article 11: Shall the town appropriate $2,000 for the Oxbow Senior Independence Project, Adult Day Services?
Caption: Dianne Smarro, Bradford citizen, explains how the project benefits Bradford, clarifying that 30% of those participating are from Bradford.
Well-informed comments help get the Ayes.
The Bradford Moderator aligns well with Seeley’s description of a democratic leader. Notably, the Moderator facilitated discussion and sought to make sure the process was followed. Not once did the Moderator suggest how the vote should go!
Here is what Seeley learned from his bee research and applied to his chairing of a departmental faculty. He says the democratic leader is limited – for the best results - to the following:
1. States group’s object
2. Defines group’s decision-making process
3. Keeps group on track
4. Fosters a balanced discussion
5. Identifies when decision is reached
It would be good to debate the merits of Seeley’s democratic leader, the town meeting process and the traditional boss/leader (“We’re not going to vote on it!”). Which approach produces the best decisions? The democratic bees select the bes
t place for a new nest 80% of the time. Can humans do better? I'd put my money on the participatory model, one that is open and safe for well informed participants to speak their minds.
Reflecting about Bradford, I wish I had tried voting more often in my work meetings – Seeley’s quorum respons
e (with anonymous ballots) suggests an effective and safe way of voting for professional groups. A vote (hand, voice, or quorum) in work situations might actually be easier than looking for the ever-elusive consensus. That consensus, in my experience, usually turned out to be a poor compromise, everyone getting a little of what they want, but far from the best solution. Larry 's comments about voting are germane: "(T)he results of a secret ballot vote are sometimes different from one in which a voter has to declare preference in front of others. Voice votes in a large group such as (a town meeting) are not very accurate, unless clearly one sided...different voices, different volumes. that is why the moderator says "The ayes appear to have it" to allow for a request for a counted vote."
Of course, democratic decision-making takes preparation and interest by all participants in what is happening. You have to do the homework. Like the Bradford townspeople, each participant has to read and examine critically the annual reports and budgets. Sometimes when we are not in charge we leave the details, even the general pros and cons, to someone else; the more absolute the boss, the less informed the subordinates. That is not what I observed in Bradford. Surely, Mr. Lincoln would have approved!