We the People… of Vershire!

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Town Meeting Culture Brings Our Community Together

Walking into the Town Center to the mingled scents of coffee with woodstove smoke gently emanating from sweaters and flannel shirts is a kind of homecoming for residents of our community, seeing neighbors greeting each other and taking their places in various official capacities, saving seats for friends or lingering at the doors in the back of the hall. There are some people I only see once a year, at Town Meeting, and I am glad for the connection. A moment of silence is always held for those who have passed away during the previous year, and their absence is felt perhaps more strongly in a  population of just over seven hundred souls, as is the valued presence of new neighbors and babies welcomed into local families.

The Vershire Town Center in a warmer season

Last year’s annual Town Meeting in Vershire started with a spontaneous round of gratitude for the organizations and projects that serve and enrich our community from Safeline and VerShare to the Cabaret, Pancake Supper, Vershire Historical Society, Vershire Women’s Wellness Circle, Rivendell Interstate School District and Vershire Climate Action Committee, along with announcements of their upcoming events. It was a warm and auspicious beginning to the relatively quiet, straightforward proceedings, and the formal meeting was easily over by lunch time - at three minutes to noon, in fact.

Town Meeting in Vershire is usually only a half-day affair anyway, as our school budget meeting is held on a later date so all the towns in the Rivendell School District can participate. This means we actually meet three times during the month of March to cover all the issues of “Town Meeting.”

This Sunday, March 5, at the Town Center, there will be an Informational Meeting at 2:00 where voters can discuss items on the warning that will actually be voted on by Australian Ballot on Tuesday, March 7, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., also at the Town Center. This is the type of voting that occurs privately in the voting booths, on paper, and can take place any time during the open poll hours. The purpose of the Sunday meeting is ask clarifying questions of the selectboard, Town Clerk and anyone else who can speak to the issues at hand, and to discuss these issues, but not for amending the articles discussed at that meeting. Only the articles that are voted on from the floor at Town Meeting on Tuesday can be amended, and only during that meeting, which starts at 10 a.m. Part three of our Town Meeting, the Rivendell Interstate School District Annual Meeting will take place Tuesday, March 21, at 6:30 p.m. at Rivendell Academy.

Read on to see where the coffee and donuts come in...

Australian Ballot was intended to encourage more participation among voters who work outside of our town and those who find it difficult to take time off from work to attend Town Meeting, though the State of Vermont requires employers to allow workers to take the time off. Studies have shown, however, that many voters still do not take advantage of the franchise through this option. It has been found that people who commute to jobs far away from their home towns tend to participate less, even in voting, and feel less connected to their communities than those who stick closer to home. The Sunday Informational Meeting is likewise not packed with the vast majority of voters in the town. Perhaps offering a lunch gathering before this meeting would increase attendance, and wouldn’t be hard to do. The Tuesday Town Meeting food crew pretty well organizes itself at this point. Sharing delicious and nourishing food is something we do well here in Vershire!

All the soups are homemade and delicious!

The Tuesday Town Meeting snacks and lunch are offered by free-will donation to the Vershire Historical Society. Morning refreshments consist of homemade donuts and other baked goods with coffee, tea and hot cocoa. Four or five large pots of soup offer meat, vegetarian and vegan options, along with several loaves of bread, including a gluten-free loaf, feed the hungry crowd that forms in the basement of the Town Center after the meeting is over, or during a break, depending on how long the proceedings are expected to last.  Moderator David Hooke follows the timing and energy level of the group as the morning unfolds. If it seems like the official business, and any known non-binding resolution issues, may last much past noon, it’s likely there will be a break to fill soup bowls. Even the most amicable of citizens can struggle to reach a deeper understanding of the greater good on four hours of only donuts and coffee. Town Meetings have been known to last until 2 p.m. - well past lunch! - though in recent years, the proceedings have been relatively streamlined. (Perhaps my midwestern vocabulary is showing and I should refer to the mid-day meal as dinner. My Vermont ancestors would have known better, but some of them packed up and moved to Ohio, so here I am having to re-assimilate.  What do you call it?)

While voting adults make up the vast majority of Town Meeting attendees, all ages of residents and some outsiders are to be found at the gathering. From infants passed from lap to lap and homeschool students on assignment to elders who sit in the front so as to hear more clearly, whole families of several generations may attend together. Those who are not registered voters of Vershire are asked to identify themselves, whether they are visitors or members of the press, and, naturally, not to add their voices to the voice votes that generally decide the business of the town. Representatives often come and speak about what’s happening in Montpelier and the committees on which they serve, and take questions from the gathered assembly.

People do still bring knitting to Town Meeting, reminding me vaguely of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities but with much friendlier intentions, perhaps resulting in merchandise for the Made In Vershire Shop. Many traditions remain in modern-day life in Vershire, some literally centuries old, such as hand-milking, heating with wood stoves, boiling maple sap into syrup, and Town Meeting Day itself. Day to day operations of grading the roads and carrying out the administrative tasks of town business as usual are vitally important to the functioning of our village, but this is a celebration as well as a necessary and practical matter. Gathering together to share food and steward our community bring us into the heart of our shared lives, into a time and place where we honor the generations before us who have come together to air differences as well as commiserate common tragedies and advance agreed-upon agendas. We vote “Aye” or “Nay” knowing that we maintain this continuity, and also have the opportunity to choose new directions whether for progress, reparation or simply the ongoing dynamic experiment of a democracy of the people, for the people and by the people. We’re all in this together, and it only works when we show up. See you there!

Next week's Buzz blog will include coverage of Town Meeting, Parts 1 & 2, as well as the Snowshoe-a-thon, which did go on despite Arctic conditions! I welcome your contributions to these stories.

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