The Political Tradition of Bernie Sanders Country: Everyone Gets a Turn to Talk

JERICHO, Vt. — Tuesday was Town Meeting Day in Vermont, and the engaged citizens of Jericho were talking at cross-purposes. At issue was a possibly incorrectly introduced amendment from the floor, and also the fact that people were not speaking directly into the microphone.

“Point of order!” someone yelled from the back of the room, the auditorium at Mount Mansfield Union High School. “Would people shut up and let Dave run the meeting, please!”

“Thank you,” said Dave, the meeting’s moderator. (That would be David S. Barrington, who is chairman of the department of plant biology and director of the Pringle Herbarium at the University of Vermont.) He turned to his right on the stage and addressed Tim Nulty, a town selectman.

“Mr. Selectman, you’re out of order,” Mr. Barrington said. “I can’t hear you.”

The outside world feels besieged by fear, confusion and discord, and not just because a new virus is stalking the planet and a freak tornado just struck Tennessee. Neighbors cannot speak to neighbors of differing political persuasions without rancor and recrimination.

Though Super Tuesday should theoretically offer some relief to voters eager to have their voices heard, politics itself seems suffused by alarm and dread.

And so Vermont’s annual town meetings provide a welcome corrective. They are a chance for voters in the state’s municipalities to discuss taxes, budgets, roads, schools, the environment and whatever else might be on their minds. As Mr. Barrington said in a statement in the town’s annual report: “It is this moderator’s conviction that we in Vermont are in the business of modeling how to run a democracy for the rest of the country.”

Town Meeting Day is traditionally held on the first Tuesday in March, though some towns have their meetings the evening before. This year, by chance, it fell on Super Tuesday. In Jericho, a town of about 5,000 people 15 miles east of Burlington, while several hundred people participated in a meeting at one end of the school, a stream of voters came in to vote in local and primary elections at the other end.

This is the state that Senator Bernie Sanders has represented in Washington for nearly 30 years, and a state where none of his 2020 rivals really challenged him. In Burlington, every other corner seems to have a Bernie sign; every other person seems to have a Bernie story. He won all of the state’s 16 delegates handily. As for the candidate himself, Mr. Sanders was planning to hold a rally in Essex Junction, just outside of Burlington, Tuesday night.

But in Jericho, at least in the town meeting, people seemed relieved not to have to talk about national politics.

“This is Vermont, and it’s a wonderful way to be part of a small community — independent of Bernie,” said Deborah Waterman, 77, who moved here about six years ago from Washington, D.C.

Emilie Alexander, 78, was helping run the bake sale outside the auditorium during the meeting, and reported that it raised several hundred dollars for the town library.

“The whole tone of the country is so discordant now that it’s difficult to get enthusiastic about what you need to do,” she said. “This makes you figure that there’s a four-letter word out there that is still going to work. It’s called hope.”

Sean McCann, the fire department’s second assistant fire chief, attended most of the meeting and said it was even more democratic than similar events in his home state of Massachusetts.

“This is a very in-tune process that incorporates more freedom of speech,” he said. “It doesn’t create animosity, but everyone walks away having had their opinion heard. That’s your democracy.”

Inside the meeting, Dave had gotten things in order. The citizens had heard presentations from their two state representatives, George Till and Trevor Squirrell. Anyone who wanted to speak was allowed to remain in his or her seat until the town administrator, Todd Odit, arrived with a microphone. A couple of women were knitting. There were a lot of plaid shirts, although one man, a retired financier who said he had some grievances with the way the town goes about making capital expenditures, wore a puffer vest.

The first item of business — the creation of a conservation fund that would be financed by an “annual tax against the grand list of $0.005” — had been approved. Next up: The proposed budget, of $3,650,056.

“I’m the current sitting chair of the Selectboard, and the tradition is that the chair speaks to the revenue section.” Mr. Nulty announced. “I’m going to concentrate on the big parts, and I’m going to leave it to the citizens to ask more detailed questions, if you have any.”

They did. They had questions about road repairs. They had questions about the buying of equipment. They had questions about what looked like an accounting mistake in the library budget. A long debate ensued on a proposed amendment from the floor to allocate $6,000 to defray the cost of two additional weeks of breakfast and lunches to needy children enrolled in the town’s summer recreation program.

Questions were raised about the finances of the program and about how exactly the extra money would be spent, even as everyone agreed that it was important to help provide meals to children who might not get them otherwise.

“I think the mistake was asking for such a small amount of money,” one citizen said into the microphone. “My experience in town meetings is that the $50,000, the $100,000, the $500,000 sails right through. We always argue about the little things.”

The amendment passed. Attention turned to the library budget, which appeared to be a little ambiguous — an accounting issue. Lisa Buckton, Jericho’s library director, explained that it had to do with an Excel spreadsheet with several different tabs.

“I assure you, Lisa, that there is no implication of malpractice,” Mr. Barrington said. “Misunderstandings occur among people of good will.”

The budget passed. Someone reminded Mr. Barrington that he was supposed to tell people they could abstain from votes instead of just voting aye or nay.

The fire department gave its report. Richard Bernstein, a mostly retired doctor who is the town’s health officer, spoke about the coronavirus.

“In meetings and social gatherings our zone of infection is six feet around you,” he said, which caused everyone to immediately calculate how close they were sitting to others.

“Everybody knows you should wash your hands,” Dr. Bernstein continued. “The secret is to do it long enough. It’s not, just dip them in the water and run away.”

A man made a plea for the town to plant more trees. Another man said he was not happy with his internet service.

“This is a ridiculous question, but whatever,” he continued. “What if the town built a cellular network and provided it free to all taxpayers?” (Sadly, “Vermont law does not permit a town to raise tax money to invest in telecommunications,” Mr. Nulty said.)

“Anything else on your mind?” Mr. Barrington asked the people still left in the auditorium, hours after the meeting began.

No.

“Thank you for investing in our town, and for your patience,” he said, “and I will see you next March.”