Tomorrow night, when Lincoln, Vermont holds its annual foray into legislative self-determination at Burnham Hall, I am confident that there will be two moments that will leave me nodding: First, when someone says something particularly wise and insightful. Second, when someone else offers a non sequitur so impressive that the rest of us at the meeting will be silent for a very long second, our minds thinking as one, “Did he really just say that?” It’s a moment like this when even our moderator — the immensely gifted David Marsters — will be at a loss for words and finally will murmur politely, “That’s a good point. But it’s not germane to the discussion.”
With any luck, it will not be me who will be repsonsible for the most spectacularly bizarre non sequitur of the night. When I am seated in my chair at town meeting, I live in fear that some unstoppable force will compel me to stand up and say something … not germane. It’s sort of like that nightmare where you walk into a high school math class during finals completely naked. There is nothing more humiliating at town meeting than offering an observation that is not germane.
On the other hand, you can be absolutely certain that I won’t be the one offering sage (or even germane) insights into backhoes, bridges, school budgets, or any of the other items in the town warning. For a guy who spends a lot of time speaking in public, I am way too terrified in town meeting to ever open my mouth.
It was over two decades ago when I attended my first town meeting in Vermont. I was in my mid-twenties then, a new kid in town who had just moved to Lincoln from Brooklyn, and I couldn’t have told you the difference between a schoolteacher and a grader. I think I thought they were one in the same. Maybe the graders were teaching assistants who worked for the teachers. Nope. I also remember thinking that anyone who was willing to be a member of the school board should be canonized, because it seemed that the only people ever asked tougher questions had probably been hoping to wind up a Supreme Court Justice.
But that’s precisely what makes town meeting matter and why I honestly don’t believe the tradition is going to disappear anytime soon: Public accountability. All of the town leaders and most of the town voters do their homework prior to the big day (or night) because everyone is watching.
Consequently, I haven’t worried about the future of the town meeting over the last decade and a half when people have written its obituary. For years we have wondered whether increased state government combined with the demise of the isolated village the reality that most people now are likely to commute to work somewhere beyond the boundaries of (pick one) Wolcott or Tunbridge or Lincoln have conspired to make town meeting a quaint anachronism. But the reality is that in a place like Lincoln, town meeting still compels us as a community to make informed decision about how we are going to spend a sizable amount of our money. It demands that we think about issues as disparate as how many educators we have in our elementary school to what kind of trucks we want for our town. To wit: A fair amount of Lincoln’s town meeting will be spent debating whether we want to buy a single axle truck with plow, wing, and sander ($130,000) or a tandem dump truck with plow, wing, and sander ($163,000). Trust me: I have NOTHING germane to add to that discussion. But I will listen and learn.
As a culture, Vermonters like both the aura of answerability that surrounds town meeting and the reality that if someone at the front of the room is ill-prepared, the meeting can deteriorate fast into blood sport.
The select board and the school board work diligently beforehand to be able to address whatever questions arise at the meeting, if only as a matter of survival.
And when we act like grownups and govern ourselves, it’s all good even if, in the end, it’s not all germane.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on February 28, 2010.)