Town Meeting Day

As I write the sun shines on a wintry Vermont. We have reached the middle of the month, just past March 15th the Ides of March, the day on which Caesar is said to have been murdered in 44 BC. March is also known for other things. The 8th of March is International Women’s Day, Spring starts on the 20th and on March 10th Daylight Savings Time begins and our days grow longer.

If you live in Vermont, you know that the first Tuesday of March is Town Meeting Day, a state holiday. Vermont remains one of the few states in which the residents of the town, meet to determine the issues before them, typically financial issues. Because March is often the beginning of mud season, much of the discussion at town meetings tends to do with roads. Vermont is a state with many miles of paved roads which suffer from frost heaves during the winter, and many miles of dirt roads, which suffer in mud season.

In Strafford Vermont, town meeting is held in the majestic 1799 Town House in the Upper Village. The morning session deals with general town business and is divided from the afternoon session dealing with school issues, by a wonderful pot luck lunch.

This year along with the election of town officers and traditional discussion of frost heaves on paved roads and mud on dirt roads, two unique items appeared on the agenda. The first was an article dealing with gun control, and the second, dealing with the rights of nature.

The article dealing with guns was discussed first. It will come as a surprise to no one that there were strong feelings on all sides.

Article 6: To see if the voters of the Town of Strafford will instruct their federal and state legislatures to:
1. Ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
2. Require a criminal background check for every gun sold in America.
3. Make gun trafficking a federal crime, with real penalties for “straw purchasers” (those who arm criminals). 

After the article was moved, residents made impassioned statements, pro and con. One speaker, a lawyer, spoke against clause three, arguing that gun trafficking already was a federal crime, but his efforts were in vain, as an amendment was passed urging enhanced penalties. The question was called, and the amendment passed by a substantial margin.

Strafford was one of several neighboring towns which considered the rights of nature. The same article passed in Norwich. In Thetford, after a tie vote followed by a recount, one person left the room, I am told, and the article failed.
The discussion surrounding the rights of nature was raised by one resident who pointed out that if corporations have rights, so should nature. The full text of the article follows:

Article 7: To see if the voters of the Town of Strafford will vote to petition, alone or with other communities, the passage of the following amendment to the Constitution of the State of Vermont:
Chapter 1, Article 22 (Rights of Nature). That the natural environment of Vermont, including its forests, natural areas, surface and ground waters, and fish and wildlife populations, has certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights to clean water and air and to health uncompromised by anthropogenic substances damaging to the systems of life and to flourishing, connected habitats which support the well‐being of the flora and fauna of Vermont. Every person in this state shall have recourse to the laws for all violations of this article, with damages recurring in full to the injured environmental system to ensure its prompt restoration.”

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the article was the standing provision in the last sentence. Even those in agreement with the rights of nature, worried that the standing provision was so broad that, as one citizen put it, Monsanto could sue a farmer for cutting down a tree.

As one speaker acknowledged, that this amendment would ever become part of the Vermont Constitution, is unlikely; Vermont has a more complex rules to amend than other states: constitutional amendments must succeed by vote in two successive legislatures, followed by a referendum.

Ultimately an amendment was accepted which deleted the second half of the first sentence: That the natural environment of Vermont, including its forests, natural areas, surface and ground waters, and fish and wildlife populations, has certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights to clean water and air.

Discussion about the word antropogenic left the tired and, by this time hungry, townspeople willing to divide the sentence into a more simple statement of rights. From the point of view of those advocating for the article, use of the more straightforward term man-made instead of antropogenic might have helped their cause.

The line for lunch was long. I balanced a plate full of cold salads, warm chili, and good bread to a bench where I sat talking with neighbors. The lunch filled my belly. We don’t all agree, but are willing to say what we think. Walking from the meeting house to my home at the edge of the village in the late winter sun of the brisk afternoon, I was happy to be a Vermonter.

Carl Yirka

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One Response to Town Meeting Day

  1. Anonymous says:

    Me, too. That was one of our best Town Meetings ever. I hope we have many more.

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