Vermont Town Meeting – Direct Participatory Democracy – Bernie Sanders – Power to the People

Being the first Tuesday in March, it is Town Meeting Day in Vermont. Here, unlike much of the world, there are only two layers of government; state & local. And for the vast majority of our 246 towns & cities, local government is composed of a legislative branch that includes EVERY citizen as may gather at an annual (and special) Town Meeting. Most communities introduce, amend, and pass all agenda items (like the town budget, tax rates, election of officers, ordinances, etc.) through a (public) floor vote by all the assembled citizens. This is our traditional Town Meeting system. And having ALL the citizens included in the legislative branch of local government lends itself to working people (who are the great majority) being more informed and more thoughtful about the positions they take (as their opinions, under such a system, very much matter). Vermont is a better place for it.

However, communities are also free to vote to change their local system of government. And in my small rural community, several years ago a majority of my neighbors narrowly voted to move to the secret ballot (with no right to propose amendments) for articles involving money. I opposed this change as it concentrates authority in the local (elected) executive branch (the 5 member Select Board). Our Select Board now has the power to propose most of the budgets & articles (and the people can only vote a simple “yes” or “no” in a voting booth). But after hearing so much good discussion today, and after witnessing frustration from folks in that they were not able to offer up changes and compromises, I introduced the following resolution (from the floor) which would return our Town Meeting to a direct participatory democracy:

“The people support the restoration of our local, direct, participatory democracy through a traditional Town Meeting system of self governance. A binding floor vote should be warned and voted on the next Town Meeting Day in March 2021.”

The resolution passed overwhelmingly through a voice vote. I now look forward to a broad public discussion in our community concerning the basic issue of democracy over the course of the coming year.

But beyond the traditional democratic rights of Vermont communities, myself and the Vermont AFL-CIO strongly assert that we, as a people and as a working class, need to EXPAND direct participatory democracy in the Green Mountain State (and beyond). In fact our labor platform asserts:

“We have seen the Democratic & Republican Parties time and again fail to sufficiently represent the interests of Organized Labor and working people generally in Montpelier (and in Washington DC). Even when they have done right by us, it often is years after Vermonters demanded action. We have also witnessed the disproportionate influence wielded by corporate lobbyists in the Statehouse. In short, even though working people constitute the great majority of Vermonters, our voice is often drowned out by big moneyed interests. We therefore propose a change in our Vermont Constitution whereby the people shall be empowered to circumvent the politicians in the Statehouse through a Town Meeting based referendum system. We shall work to realize this Constitutional change through an effort to build public support for this expansion of democracy culminating in a statewide vote on this proposal in accordance with the procedures set forth in our present VT Constitution for amending this document.”

As such, we, the Vermont AFL-CIO, envision a new vestment of power in the hands of the people through a system whereby local communities in aggregate have the authority to decide all the major issues of our day; be it the right to universal healthcare, or truly livable wages for all.

But even as we struggle to grow direct democracy in Vermont, we are still compelled to engage in the limited representational system of government we presently find ourselves mired in. And while some purists will undoubtedly argue that such engagement amounts to the surrender of our collective power, I would contend that disengagement from (representational) electoral politics cedes too much political power to corporations, lobbyists, the wealthy donors, and those who have an interest in maintaining an inequitable status quo. Thus the Vermont AFL-CIO’s decision to endorse the [democratic socialist] Progressive Party slate in today’s election for Burlington City Council, and our backing of progressive Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson & City Councilman Conor Casey [and my personal vote in the Democratic Primary for socialist Bernie Sanders].

Engagement in electoral politics, for organized labor, must be tactical in nature. We are wise to take part in this process in order to remove barriers to creating a more just and equitable society. We must use our numbers go give voice and strength to those who stand by labor. But we should never view elections as an end in themselves. Rather, if we are serious in our desire to make foundational social change, we must also fight to expand the democratic rights of the many. In short, we must struggle to realize a direct democracy in our local communities, in our states, across the nation, in our workplaces, and beyond. As it is only through the radical expansion of democracy that we shall deliver POWER TO THE PEOPLE.

David Van Deusen,
President of the Vermont AFL-CIO

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