Our opinion: It's a matter of time

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On Saturday afternoon in the gymnasium at Manchester Elementary-Middle School, there was a good deal of discussion about the importance and value of Manchester Town Meeting — and whether it's a relic of a past age that's slowly fading away, or a unique slice of Vermont heritage worth saving.

Several points were made about the relatively small number of attendees (215) and the relative age thereof. There were questions about whether the meeting should move back to Monday night or remain on Saturday afternoon, and whether Australian ballot voting is a better option on important issues, or the death knell of the floor meeting.

Town Meeting is Vermont at its purest. It inspired "Freedom of Speech," one of Norman Rockwell's classic "Four Freedoms" paintings, and that legacy has spread from Arlington to everywhere people cherish the right to govern themselves. It deserves to thrive.

But Manchester Town Meeting must evolve if it's going to remain relevant and regain interest. So it's time to reconsider the rules in Manchester, and fine-tune them to meet our needs.

Here's the key issue: Few, if any, have the time and the patience to sit through five hours and five minutes of debate, as was the case Saturday. Town Meeting can't be like an overtime hockey playoff game that grinds on indefinitely until someone finally scores a goal. It needs to be predictable, so that modern people with multiple responsibilities can confidently make it a part of their busy schedules.

It needs to be no longer than three hours, tops.

We therefore propose that speaking times be reduced dramatically. The current 10-minute limit has proven too generous, and it is not easily enforced. We suggest five minutes per person per agenda item for binding business.

We surely do not wish to stifle debate. But five minutes is more than adequate for getting one's point across. The voters can always suspend the rules by unanimous consent if longer explanations are needed. And a five-minute limit establishes the mindset that the proceedings need to keep moving, for the benefit of all.

Along those same lines, up to three minutes per person should suffice for non-binding resolutions and "other business" — particularly since those items typically come at the end of the meeting, when everyone's had enough Town Meeting for a year. Again, the rules can always be suspended by unanimous consent.

We also propose that the rules stipulate paper ballots be used only when the margin of a standing "division of the house" is so close that the results are cast in reasonable doubt.

Administering a paper ballot consumes 30 minutes or more, during which no other business is transacted. In the interest of saving time, they ought to be an option of last resort.

Outside of rule changes, day care should be provided so that Manchester families can more easily attend. Town Meeting is held in a school, after all.

And since that's the case, here's another idea: If we want to get the younger generation excited about citizen government, why not sponsor a youth Town Meeting, run by the students themselves while the adults hold theirs? The last order of business could be the kids reporting back to the adults on their achievements.

Last but not least, Town Meeting needs crock pots, chafing dishes, punch bowls and cookies. Consider this a voice vote in favor of bringing back the post-meeting potluck supper as a means of re-establishing it as the social event of the season. After all, if you've attended a fundraising dinner at any church or community organization, then you've learned a lesson those groups have never forgotten: Meals bring people together.

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