In the late 1700s, as today, town citizens in Vermont held town meetings so that they could address the problems and issues they faced collectively. Popular matters of legislation in earlier town meetings included whether or not to let pigs run free or whether smallpox vaccinations should be allowed in the town (some thought vaccinations were dangerous). Voters also ecided what goods or labor could be used as payment for taxes. The first town meeting was held in Bennington in 1762, fifteen years before Vermont was created.
Town Meeting Day is a state holiday in Vermont. 14% of Vermont’s Towns hold their meeting on Saturday. Many people were surprised to discover that turnout for Town Meeting did not increase with Saturday meetings. Many factors can affect turnout at town meeting. For example, in 2001 there was a big blizzard. That year many towns postponed their meetings.
Town Meeting, as many commentators have said, is "democracy being practiced in its purest form." It is the day when all the legal voters of a town have an opportunity to air their grievances; a day when true town business is addressed; and the source of a much-needed social respite towards the end of a long Vermont winter.
Vermont law stipulates that Town Meeting must be held on the first Tuesday in March (the meeting may actually start on any of the three preceding days if voters so decide), (17 V.S.A. § 2640). However, it is important to note that all nine cities in Vermont, as well as 16 of the towns, have special charters or charter amendments which may allow them to set different dates for Town Meeting.
There are a number of statutorily required items that a municipality must vote on at Town Meeting. They include: electing municipal officers (17 V.S.A. § 2646); approving the budget (17 V.S.A. § 2664); approval of zoning bylaws (24 V.S.A. § 4404); authorization of long-term capital borrowing (24 V.S.A. §§ 1751 et seq.) and
deciding whether or not the town will operate on a fiscal or a calendar year (24 V.S.A. 1683).
A town can choose in many cases, but not all, to vote on issues by Australian ballot (pre-printed, paper ballots), rather than from the floor of Town Meeting(24 V.S.A. §2680).
In order to vote on an issue at Town Meeting, the articles must be properly "warned" prior to the meeting. This means that the town must place the voters on alert "by posting a warning and notice in at least two public places in the town, and in or near the town clerk’s office, not less than 30 nor more than 40 days before the meeting." (17 V.S.A. § 2641(a)). There are also publishing requirements that require five to ten days’ notice, depending on the method selected (Id at (b)). There are other limitations on what can be done at Town Meeting: the voters cannot take action on an improperly warned article, they cannot do things which are the responsibility of town officers, nor can town officers be removed from their jobs or told how to do them.
Each year, the town shall elect a moderator, whose job it is to ". . . decide questions of order and shall make public declaration of votes taken, except in elections using the Australian ballot system." In addition, the moderator shall "preserve order," and may cause to be removed "persistently disorderly" persons (17 V.S.A. §§ 2657-59).
There is no general requirement for chartered municipalities to observe town meeting or to put their budgets to plebiscite. When the Town of South Burlington was re-chartered as the City of South Burlington in 1971, the new charter provided for city elections in April and required only budget increases of 10% or more per annum to be placed before voters. No other municipality has been granted such a charter by the legislature, and there is strong sentiment against making future exceptions.
Town Meeting has evolved over the years from a freewheeling sort of get-together into an important meeting where town government, the lives of real people, and the transfer of a great deal of money all intersect. Vermonters should treasure Town Meeting as an opportunity to add their two cents to democracy – a chance that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
According to the Vermont Secretary of State’s Citizen’s Guide to Town Meeting, Vermont gives state employees the day off on town meeting day. Vermont "law also gives a private employee the right to take unpaid leave from work to attend his or her annual town meeting, subject to the essential operation of the business or government. An employee must give the employer at least seven days notice if he or she wants to take advantage of this right to attend town meeting. Students who are over 18 also have the right to attend town meeting" and not be declared truant.
The first town meeting in America was in Massachusetts in 1633, but the practice of direct democracy dates back to around 400 B.C. in Athens of ancient Greece. Unlike town meetings today, in ancient Greece women, children and slaves could not vote, and meetings required the presence of at least 6,000 citizens.
Source: vermont.gov | wikipedia.org | vlct.org | vt.us
In 2023 Town Meeting Day in Vermont in USA falls on March 7.