A day for the people's business

A Vermont town meeting

KAI RYSSDAL: It's a big day in Vermont today. The first Tuesday in March is traditionally Town Meeting Day. Colchester residents are debating the value of the Bookmobile. In Milton, voters will decide on $1.5 million bond for mold repair in the elementary school. People who live in Winooski will vote on a new community center.

It all sounds a bit quaint. But for Vermonters, it's the way local politics have worked since the 1700s.

Attendance at town meetings is down, though. And this exercise in a more intimidate form of democracy is fading. John Dillon reports from Vermont Public Radio, a bill in the Legislature hopes to revive a tradition.


JOHN DILLON: Vermont State Senator Dick McCormack loves the ideal of the Town Meeting. For this one day, he says, every citizen becomes a legislator.
DICK MCCORMACK: It's local and it's direct democracy.

On Town Meeting Day, people across the state gather to set town and school budgets, hire the road foreman, or buy a new snow plow. The problem is that the meetings are often held during the day, when people have to work.

McCormack says the institution is in danger of becoming a relic.

MCCORMACK: I think the question is how serious are we about this? Is this really just Norman Rockwell picturesque, or is this in fact a form of government we take seriously?

McCormack has co-sponsored legislation that would require employers to provide an unpaid day off for Town Meeting. But a mandated day off triggers alarm bells for businesses, especially those in the service sector.

Mike Belyea is spokesman for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

MIKE BELYEA: Our only concern would be a business that may have staffing issues.

But Belyea says employers could deal with the legislation, since they already have to rearrange work schedules to accommodate vacations and personal days.

There are, of course, other reasons for dwindling attendance at Town Meeting. Some people don't care to get involved in participatory democracy. Others just find town meetings, well, boring.

In Montpelier, Vermont, I'm John Dillon for Marketplace.

[Music by John Gailmor]

RYSSDAL: Thanks to the gang at Vermont Public Radio for sending us that song. It's called, appropriately enough, "A Town Meeting Tune." It's by Vermont legend John Gailmor.

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