I love it when presidential aspirants have what we in the media call a “town meeting” style debate. Those debates are not town meetings — and not simply because there are no school board officials there we can pretend are slow-moving zombies in an Xbox game designed for violent teens with 666 tattooed on their arms.
I really respect everyone on the school board. They are the salmon of local government, always swimming as hard as they can upstream. Sure, most of the time they get what they want — an approved budget — but then they collapse, exhausted. Unlike the salmon, they don’t actually die. But have you ever glimpsed a school board member’s face after Town Meeting Day? They always look like those actors in the last reel of Oliver Stone’s “Platoon.”
In any case, they impress the heck out of me. Every one of them is a much better person than I am. Same with the folks on the selectboard. Just like the members of the school board, they do very hard work for very little money.
The selectboard also does work that is — and there is no polite way to say this — boring. Seriously boring. Work that involves some of the most tedious words in the English language. Words like “permit.” And “budget.” And “grader.”
Moreover, they have to go to meetings. When Dante was designing his inner rings of hell, he wanted to make one of them nothing but meetings. His publisher dissuaded him, explaining that no one would buy the book if they thought there were meetings.
I am reminded of this because tomorrow night and Tuesday mark Vermont’s annual foray into legislative self-determination: town meeting. I’ve now been going to town meeting here in Lincoln since March 1987. I read the Warning (Has there ever been a more aptly named booklet?) and my wife and I make our over-under bet on the word “germane.” How many times will the moderator have to silence one of our neighbors with the dreaded “G” word? Five? Seven? Nine? I speak in public all the time, sometimes before two and three hundred people, but when I stand up to speak in town meeting, I’m terrified. I’m convinced I am about to say something that is not, in the end, germane.
But here’s the thing about town meeting. It works and I love it. It’s messy. It’s contentious. It’s boring.
And yet by the time we are done, we will have a budget for our town and one for our school. When we go home, we will have supported — or chosen not to support — a variety of local nonprofits and social service providers. An animal shelter. A preschool. A hospice.
People joke that making laws is like making sausage. Town meeting has moments like that. Some years, I’ve had absolutely no idea how our moderator or town clerk has kept track of the amendments to the amendments to the motion. For all I know, I have been voting to make Paris Hilton the Queen of our annual Hill Country Holiday. It’s possible I’ve voted to make Slim Jim Pudding a new flavor of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.
But I don’t think so because, more times than not, my neighbors know what they’re doing.
I imagine that’s the case in most of Vermont’s 251 towns. That’s why town meeting continues to work, despite people writing its obituary for a quarter-century now. And while the presidential town meeting debates are far more mannered, rehearsed, and staged than what we do here in the Green Mountains, I think we should be flattered that the term still has so much cachet that political spin machines have commandeered it.
Consequently, this week, even if you disagree with everything your school boards and selectboards have said, take a moment to remind them you’re grateful.
And then, to keep them humble, tell them nothing they said was germane.
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This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on March 3, 2013. Chris's new novel, "The Light in the Ruins," arrives on July 16.