By Emily Erickson
We have officially returned to the time of year when politics loom large in our lives. Our mailboxes are stuffed with postcards summarizing political platforms (or slandering opposing candidates), lawn signs in reds and blues boast varying compositions of last names and stars and stripes, and local newspapers, radio stations, and media platforms share candidate-related features and news stories.
Election season promotes a grand tuning-in by local citizens, calling us to pay attention to the state of our communities and our leaders’ roles within them, and to participate in charting a course to the futures we want to see. If we lived in Vermont, it would also mean attending a Town Meeting Day.
Observed on the first Tuesday of March every year, Town Meeting Days are observed by most Vermont towns, during which they elect their municipal officers, approve budgets and address civic issues in a day-long public event. As a state holiday, government offices close, and employees have the right to take leave from work to attend the meeting, per Vermont law.
On Town Meeting Day, residents gather in a community space, discuss ballot items, debate the issues most important to them and vote in person by voice, hand or paper ballot. It’s a tradition that began in 1762 (15 years before Vermont was even a state), and is one of the last remaining vestiges of direct democracy in our country.
I’ve been thinking about Vermont’s Town Meeting Day this election season because of how different it feels than our “check yes or no” secret ballot voting system. Vermont’s style of democracy feels personal, local and service-oriented.
Town Meeting Day is personal because it removes anonymity from the voting process. If a person feels strongly enough about a topic to speak, they must prepare and present their argument clearly and be willing to civilly debate anyone in opposition to them, as guided by a moderator. Their perspective is not shared without the context of who they are, or their role or history in the community.
Town Meeting Day is also hyper-local. Items brought to the table by community members are often considered at the smallest, most specific scale. Downtown potholes and the implications of their repair on business are discussed and debated by the parties most affected by them — informing voters’ opinions in real time, before they’re called to decide on the best course of action for that issue.
This direct version of democracy feels service-oriented, like an in-house meeting before hiring an employee. By showing up and discussing the issues on the ballot and the candidates vying for election, community members can get clear on what they need from a public servant as it relates to that servant’s prospective role — collectively hiring whoever is best equipped to meet those specific needs.
Having an actual Town Meeting Day to cast our votes might be a bit far-fetched for our North Idaho community, but its tenets can certainly be applied to our local political decision making processes. We can seek candidates with personal connection to the topics they’re championing and experience with the issues they’re claiming to be able to solve. We can require locality and specificity, eliminating ambiguous stances and platforms built on topics that don’t directly apply to us. And we can remember that we’re not choosing a leader to disseminate their macro-level agendas, ideologies or philosophies; but, rather, hiring an employee to do the day-to-day jobs required by our community.
We can look for more answers like Sen. Jim Woodward’s and Rep. Sage Dixon’s (whether or not we agree with them) in the April 21 Reader legislative candidate questionnaire, with Woodward stating, “I supported the grocery tax credit increase, which now allows a family of four to purchase $8,000 of groceries tax free annually.”
With similar specificity and relevance, Dixon stated, “Encouraging programs like the Good Neighbor Authority and the Shared Stewardship Board, will help to mitigate wildfire risk, increase access to public lands, and protect our lakes and rivers.”
By contrast, we can be wary of answers like those from Spencer Hutchings and Adam Rorick that are ambiguous at best and, at worst, forcing grand partisan agendas into local races.
Hutchings baselessly aims at working “to eliminate CRT, sexual orientation-related and politically motivated education from taxpayer-funded schools,” as if those topics were cornerstones of Idahoan education. Similarly, Rorick states his reason for running is because he has “seen firsthand how the left’s socialist, tax-and-spend ideology has destroyed cities and our culture” without substantiating any of his “firsthand” accounts.
In our closest approximation to Town Meeting Day, candidates’ forums will be held for Bonner County candidates on Monday, May 2, and District 1 on Tuesday, May 3 at Sandpoint High School at 5:30 p.m. It’s at events like these that we can ask more of the people we elect to serve us — keeping local politics as relevant, specific and service-oriented as possible.
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