On March 12, 2019

The importance of town meetings

By Sen. Alison Clarkson

One of the biggest challenges for a state senator is attending Town meetings.  The Windsor County District encompasses 26 towns and is the largest county in Vermont.  I treasure Vermont’s Town Meeting tradition and its form of direct democracy.  As a relatively new Windsor County Senator – visiting town meetings gives me additional insight into the character of the towns we represent and local priorities.  My goal is to get to as many town meetings as possible.  But this is tough to accomplish when they are all held during one of three times and there is so much distance between towns.  For example, Windsor and Rochester both conduct their Town meetings on Monday night – both start at 7 p.m. and they are a fair hike apart.  We have meetings on Saturday, March 5, Monday night on March 8 and Tuesday, March 13.

This year I managed to make it to 10 town meetings and heard some pretty robust conversations about a multitude of local issues from merging fire departments to the cost of  welcome signs.  Now that I serve on the Senate Committee on Government Operations, many of these discussions relate to the work we are addressing in committee.  Vermont, along with the rest of the country, faces a crisis in our ability to recruit volunteers to serve in our fire and emergency medical service departments.  Even towns with professional departments are facing recruitment challenges.  We are exploring incentives, training, reimbursements and possible regional pilot programs to help solve this problem.   

Town meetings also remind me how important the partnership is between our towns and our state government.  In Vermont, towns are creatures of the Legislature.  We are a Dillon State, which means that the Legislature, which created towns, has to approve changes to Town law through a charter change.  While many charter changes pass each Ssssion – it doesn’t make for flexible or nimble responses to local needs.  As a result, our committee is exploring piloting a program which would enable more independence for towns.  S.106 proposes to establish the Municipal Self-Governance Commission to review, recommend and report on proposals for expanded municipal self-governance.  It envisions authorizing 10 pilot municipalities to enact any ordinances which aren’t contrary to state or federal law.   

At our best, we work together —our towns and our state —to support our citizens, our communities and our environment.  We work together enabling democracy in our precious small state.  We work together on projects often too big to manage alone – on transportation, education, strengthening our village centers and downtowns, building our workforce, preserving our historic places, protecting our environment, taking care of those in need, and protecting the public safety of our people.  Town Meeting week has been a wonderful reminder of that partnership. 

When the Senate returns from the Town Meeting recess on March 12 , we will finish up work on the bills we’ve been crafting for the last eight weeks as we face the mid-March ‘cross-over’ deadline – the halfway mark in the session when we must get bills to the House to be enacted this Session.

I can be reached by email:  aclarkson@leg.state.vt.us or phone (Tues-Fri) 828-2228 or at home (Sat-Mon) 457-4627.

Alison Clarkson is a senator for Windsor County.

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