From Bees to Bradford

Posted by jlubans on February 25, 2012

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“We encourage all Bradford residents to come and participate in this annual exercise of democracy.” That’s the message on the Vermont town (est. pop, 2716) of Bradford's web site.
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I’ll be inside the auditorium of the depicted Bradford Academy building on March 6 as a guest observer courtesy of Larry Coffin, the town’s Moderator.
Why will I be there? Because the Bradford town meeting is mentioned as an outstanding example of the democratic-decision making process. It is an annual event led by a moderator and not an elected or appointed boss. I know about Bradford (and Larry) from mentions in two books:

Miller, Peter. The Smart Swarm: How Understanding Flocks, Schools, and Colonies Can Make Us Better at Communicating, Decision Making, and Getting Things Done.
New York: Penguin Group 2010 (Describes the Bradford town meeting process on pp. 86-91)
&
Seeley, Thomas D. Honeybee Democracy
. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 2010 (Seeley comments, on pages 221 & 223, about Larry Coffin’s 40 years of moderating Bradford’s Town Meetings.)
This year there will be a new moderator; Larry has said 40 years is enough, but he will remain one year more as the Parliamentarian who interprets Robert's Rules of Order when procedural questions come up. And, I’d guess he will be there to offer assistance and support as needed for the new Moderator.
Seeley says the effective democratic leader, based on what he has learned from his research on honeybees, is limited 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
New England town meetings go back to 1663. That first meeting occurred in Dorchester, Massachusetts, near Boston.
Town meetings have their critics, including James Madison: "In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob."
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Mr. Madison makes it sound somewhat like a pro wrestling match (I’d expect Passion’s costume (yes, there is a lady wrestler by that name) to beat Reason’s every time). Of course, long after Mr. Madison spoke of Athenian mobs (true to this day!) Civil War General Henry M. Robert’s Rules of Order have helped Reason keep her scepter.
I'll be posting my observations a few days after the meeting.

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