Brattleboro Representative Town Meeting – Fix It or Toss It?

As I continue to ponder Representative Town Meeting system used by Brattleboro, I find myself coming to the same conclusion: it either needs to be reformed, or it needs to go.

The biggest problem is representation. While voters can elect “representatives” to participate in Representative Town Meeting, there is almost no representation going on. Unlike selectboard candidates, reps rarely state to voters what they stand for. Reps rarely hold district meetings to discuss issues. Voting records of reps aren’t tallied or made public. And almost all the information reps take to Representative Town Meeting is given to them by town officials, not constituents.

Voters, despite picking names on district ballots, often don’t know who represents them, how to reach them, or how those reps have voted. Writing in names of people better known to a voter has been eliminated, unless that person is deemed “official” through registering as a candidate. Sometimes reps get slots through the caucus process, under the radar of most district voters.

There is almost no accountability in this system.

Even the most outgoing and concerned rep making every effort will can run into trouble at RTM when issues that were not warned come up for decision-making. Do my constituents want me to vote in favor of this amendment to raise the amount of money going to Human Services? There is no way to know.

One solution is to eliminate the middleman, so to speak, and let voters participate in regular Town Meetings. Each person would represent their own point of view. To do this, a town-wide ballot issue would need to be approved to return to regular Town Meeting. After that, voters could participate or not, freely as they choose. Their decisions would be their own. There would be no reps and the Town Clerk wouldn’t have to keep track of who was a RTM member any longer.

Another solution would be to fix the problem of representation. Not only accountability, but access and responsibilities. 

The idea of “districts” is a problem. For effective local representation to occur, a voter should know their local rep. They should know where they live, how to contact them, and know that they will see them in the neighborhood. There need to be ample opportunities for discussion and feedback.

Districts are large, and reps for my neighborhood may live blocks away and never come down my street. As a voter, having a district “team” to rely on is more difficult than having a single person to reach out to on an issue.

When first presented, RTM was designed so that districts would be politically active. Reps would pay attention to town issues throughout the year and hold district meetings to discuss with voters. Voting took place in districts, not a single location. There was more interaction expected.

Life was a bit simpler, perhaps, and there was enough time to do it that way. Now, it doesn’t work. Corners have been cut. For the most part, reps don’t participate in town government for most of the year. They get signatures for petitions in January, attend “cliff note” informational sessions just prior to meeting, and participate on Representative Town Meeting day. The only regular district meetings are short caucuses prior to the information sessions.

Having neighborhood representation might fix this. It would be easier for reps to keep an eye on those they represent and vice versa. It would be easier for voters to let their reps know what they think if things were neighborhood-based.

A voter being able to select a single representative rather than a slate of up to 15 would force a more personal connection between voter and rep.  Rather than choose district reps, voters would choose a neighborhood rep. Ideally, this would be the one person everyone on the street knows and trusts to represent them, and someone who likes representing needs of neighbors. Candidates would have an incentive to make their case to their neighbors.

With this change, the number of reps at RTM would go up, which would be more representative of town. Reps would have a better idea of what to do, knowing that they represented the concerns of their neighborhood first and foremost. Voters would better know their rep and have more opportunities to be in contact with their rep throughout the year.

Brattleboro could institute some sort of “neighborhood day” in March prior to RTM. Reps currently go to info sessions to get information from officials. Neighborhood day would be similar but to get information from voters in the reps’ neighborhood. Reps would then know both the official positions, and how their neighborhood feels about it.

Another useful change would be to tally and publish the votes of each rep on each issue after RTM. It would make it easier for voters to see what happened, and hold their reps accountable. There might be more turnover and turnout if voters were more aware of who raised their taxes or cut their programs.

Would this solve the popularity contest aspect of selecting reps? Not entirely, but it would inject additional accountability and awareness, neighborhood by neighborhood. 

Other towns that use the RTM system sometimes structure things so that the reps prepare and present the budget at the meeting. They get the Town requests, then reps consider them, not Selectboard members. That could clear up confusion at the Selectboard level, as recently seen at a couple of meetings where human services funding directions were unclear. It would force more reps to become more active throughout the year, and would free up time for the Selectboard to work on other issues.

As it stands, RTM doesn’t work. It’s up to voters if it should be improved or eliminated.

Representative Town Meeting in Brattleboro – Part 1: Its Origins and Adoption:

Representative Town Meeting in Brattleboro – Part 1: Its Origins and Adoption

Comments | 5

  • Good food for thought

    Thanks, Chris. This topic should not stay on the back burner as long as it has. We’re lazy.

  • I completely agree with the problem, and thank you for

    I completely agree with the problem, and thank you for raising it. I am a rep and have been told “talk to 10 people” and if every rep does this, representation will happen. I do not agree.

    If RTM were eliminated here, what better process should replace it? Direct democracy or council representation? What is the role of referendum voting?

    There are now around 138 reps, which is an impossible number for the public to vet, even if prospective reps campaigned about their position. Are council wards the only other alternative?

    Emilie Kornheiser sets a great example when she has a weekly zoom where she asks people what they want from their government.

    Burling has NPAs (Neighborhood Planning Assemblies) that play an important role in driving conversations that are necessary for leading to decisions

  • RTM representation

    The implied claim in the above story is that RTM Reps are not making the best possible decisions for the town because they likely have no idea about what their immediate neighborhood constituents want. They rely fully on their own knowledge and understanding. I suppose this assertion is possible. There has never been a study to provide at least some insights into this problem. Some kind of investigation that would at least suggest an answer.

    One should agree that RTM Reps are not representing neighborhood inclinations since there is no evidence that Reps take any useful measures to discover what these beliefs and opinions are. When voters are choosing their reps they are primarily responding to what, if anything, they happen to know or read or heard about the candidate(s). As Mr. Grotke points out as often as not that amounts to nothing. However the general presumption is that people asking for a seat at RTM are acting on a greater than average interest in town affairs. It certainly seems that way from listening to the statements and opinions we hear at RTM. That is perhaps the major criteria for electing a Rep. A person who by simply seeking a seat is saying that they have an interest in town affairs. We then hope that such person’s actual self-education on the issues is commensurate with their desire. Although I believe the level of civic engagement is higher here in Brattleboro than most other places in this country that still isn’t saying much. The standards of democracy in the US are surprisingly low for a democratic nation. In fact, the Economist, which annually surveys the strength of democracy in every country in the world, shows the US losing its standing in the Full Democracy category and falling into the Flawed category in 2018. I suspect after this last year the US has sunk even lower.
    I’m not sure how to measure the effectiveness of RTM. Perhaps it is to review all decisions and see which ones achieved what they were supposed to. But even if they did there is a deeper level of effectiveness regarding the importance of issues it was given to decide. If in the end RTM is making decisions about only superficial matters concerning how we live as a community then tweaks here and there to make them more “representative” of their neighborhood is not going to have any overall beneficial effect. I am alluding here to the Dillon’s Rule reality that in Vermont the state holds all the power and delegates very little to towns and cities. My analogy is to that of a nuclear family where a child can only decide on how to spend the little it can earn for itself or receive in grants (allowance). The other 99% of household income is controlled by the responsible adult(s).
    Nevertheless the quality of RTM decisions remains the issue here. I agree that improvements can be made. As Mr Grotke suggests district caucuses might be of use. Perhaps required halfway through the year or even quarterly. Or perhaps there can be additional qualifications for nominations such as written statements about key issues and/or ideas that must be submitted with petitions and would then be posted on the town website. A little creative thinking along this line might produce a thousand reasonable ideas for making better reps. Would stronger requirements reduce the number of people interested in being a rep at all? Maybe. If so, perhaps ensuing investigation might show that a smaller body is better anyway. Most of all, however, is the need to find a way to measure RTM’s effectiveness to know if there is a problem at all and, if so, what they are and how serious them may be. Then we can take more intelligent steps to remediate.

  • Effectiveness

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    I’m not questioning the quality of the decisions here, but the access and accountability in this form of democracy.

    Your main point is the lack of a way to measure effectiveness. Very true. There isn’t much to go on other than meeting warnings, budgets, and occasional vote tallies. Tax rates rising and falling. New projects and initiatives being undertaken or accomplished.

    Are reps effective at approving what’s presented to them? I think, more or less, yes. Would they have more effectiveness with control over how the Town operates if they handled the annual budget instead of the selectboard? Probably.

    Is the system effective at being representative of the people of town? I’m not so sure. Sitting through the selectboard meetings of the last year, a highly motivated group of people were quite effective at looking at community safety and changing rules about rental housing. Both quite substantial changes, and accomplished for the most part by people who aren’t typically seen at RTM. There’s a bit of a disconnect, but perhaps a new wave of those politically involved at the selectboard levels will move to RTM? Not so sure.

    I don’t think RTM is a structure that works for a lot of people. I think it does work, or appears to work, from the point of view of a rep. I did it. I gathered my signatures, went to the informational sessions, and spent the day debating and voting. It is also true that one can have an interest, but not get enough votes, to participate in Brattleboro democracy as a rep.

    Fun to discuss, and working it all out with words on paper is a cheap and easy experiment that might lead to something.

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