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It's germane: Thank the school and select boards.

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.

* * * 

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.

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Chris,Like you, my hat is


Like you, my hat is off to citizens who selflessly serve on town boards and school boards, but in my experience in both rural and urban jurisdictions (Minnesota) the modern public meeting is not exactly the "pure democracy" that one associates with the town meeting ideal or model originating in the early days of New English townships. 

To speak at a school board meeting in my suburban district, one must first sign up (make an appointment) at least a week before the meeting date. Once you are in attendance at the public meeting, only one part of meeting (usually right before adjournment) is reserved for public participation. During that allocated time slot, you have to wait until the chair recognizes you (calls on you) and, regardless of the complexity of the issue, you are limited to THREE MINUTES for your input or comments.  You can address the chair ONLY (not other board members) and,  if you ask a question or explanation, the chair has full discretion whether to answer it then or take it "under advisement" for a POSSIBLE written response at some later time.  The whole experience made me feel pretty much like Oliver Twist in the orphanage dining hall, asking "Please sir, may I have some more soup?"

During the other parts of these public meetings, citizens in attendance are basically observers only, with protocol prescribing they remain silent while the board goes through its agenda. In an Orwellian-like setting, the board of my urban county meets BEHIND a floor to ceiling  glassed-in area that seals them off completely from the seating area for OBSERVING citizens.  It's similar to viewing a state of the art  recording or broadcast studio through huge sound-proof glass panes, with the citizens clearly NOT part of the "performance" except  during citizen comment time when a microphone for them is turned on in this viewing area. 

As for the "town meetings" (in name only) conducted by presidential candidates, from  what I have heard (admitedly hearsay), they are typically tightly controlled "staged" events rather than spontaneously occurring interactions.  Almost nothing is left to chance.  Such staging (one might call it political theater) has practically become the norm in my opinion.  Even houses for sale are staged.  Excuse my cynicism, but these trends strike me as part of what I would call an increasingly pervasive "fakiness" or lack of authenticity in our cultural life. It's one thing to "put your best foot forward"; it's another to create a completely fabricated persona or image.

After our bureaucrats (so-called public servants) have added all these regulations and the staging to "insulate" themselves,  this is what citizen rights have pathetically come to in the modern public meeting.  The process has been totally  inverted or should I say PERVERTED:  It's the citizens who have become the SERVANTS.