The Selectboard Is Perfect. Or Maybe The Representative Town Meeting Is A Rubber Stamp

The people must make RTM representative and creative, to insure RTM represents the people and looks beyond the money and infrastructure concerns of the selectboard. Join your neighbors.

At the 2021 RTM the selectboard assigned twenty-five articles for the RTM to consider. Many times the debate ended before everyone was finished, and all twenty-five were approved with huge majorities, many above 90% . Does this mean the selectboard is perfect, or does it mean the RTM is an uninformed rubber-stamp ?

At a recent selectboard candidate forum there was a show of hands of people who had read the town charter, and hardly anyone in the audience raised a hand. The surprise was that some people campaigning and on the selectboard had not read the charter, either.

America has a strong ethic of hands-on innovation, but that doesn’t mean we should operate complicated equipment without any study or instruction. Nowadays the tendency to make every computer program and app “user friendly” means that people could use the programs and apps without any preparation. Maybe this is contributing to people’s sense that they can just dive in and start up anything, whether it’s a cellphone, a chain saw, or a town government. Hands-on shouldn’t mean brain-off.

The Brattleboro Charter has provisions for hands-on involvement in government. The first, very familiar provision is in Article 3, the petition process. Brattleboro Common Sense has used the petition process to bring issues of public concern to the ballot, for instances the sustainability coordinator position and the Youth Vote amendment. In 2010 BCS won a court decision protecting the petition process from censorship. But in all these instances BCS studied the issues and the laws, and consulted an attorney. People can bring petitions for a vote of the people and also for a vote of the RTM.

Another way that our charter encourages hands-on government is our Representative Town Meeting. It is a representative assembly, like the selectboard, but requiring a much smaller commitment of time from its members. Even so, the RTM has a greater mission than the selectboard, being defined in the town charter as a guiding body for the town.
Still, RTM is underused and underestimated. Issues are rarely addressed by RTM members (reps) unless the issues are forwarded by the selectboard. Here’s why. The selectboard compiles the agenda of RTM and puts the time for the public’s ideas and reps’ guidance, etc at the end. (The board wants mostly to assure that the budget and other financial proposals get approved: they work hard on the budget and don’t want to do it over. Unfortunately, their preoccupation leaves the agenda looking like nothing matters but money.) Here is another reason.

Before the RTM and moderator position were created in 1959, the selectboard presided over voters at the front of town meeting. But the selectboard still keeps its traditional position. This is contrary to the town charter. The RTM is a guiding body, and the selectboard is a ministerial body that tends to every-day affairs, as plainly required by the town charter (Article 4 section 6):

“The selectboard shall have the general oversight of the affairs and property of the town not committed by law to the care of any particular officer, including, but not limited to, the following powers, duties and responsibilities . . . to provide for the appointment of police officers. . . the lighting of bridges and sidewalks.” Their duties make a long and varied list. Guidance, ideas, proposals and comments are not on the selectboard’s list. These are given by town charter (Article 2 section 4) to the care of other officers of the town, namely the RTM members (reps): “The representative town meeting . . . is a guiding body for the town and a source of ideas, proposals and comments.”

The charter says “members of” the selectboard shall be members of RTM, indicating that they attend RTM as individuals, not as a group. Nothing in the charter gives the board members at RTM any special status. Members of the board should sit with everyone else, but they sit at a table at the front of the meeting with their own microphones, greater comfort, greater visibility, and greater opportunity to speak than the other reps. This creates an unintentional concentration of power in the selectboard. Many reps feel they can’t be properly informed and guided without the selectboard in front. Of course they feel that way if they don’t inform themselves on the issues or read the charter. Reps have the same information available to them as the selectboard. They do not need the selectboard for guidance: reps are supposed to BE the guidance !

Members of Brattleboro Common Sense have negotiated some improvements in the architecture and process of the meeting, and we aim to do more. The end of selectboard dominance began in 2011 with a charter amendment that clarifies the equal role that the board and other members share. In 2014 a motion was approved to reaffirm that board members must stand to speak like other reps. In 2016 a motion was made for the first time to remove the board members from their elevated platform and seat them with the other reps. The BCS worker making that motion was ridiculed, but since then the issue of RTM fairness has gained wide support. BCS meetings on Active RTM used to bring just three or four people. In 2019 twelve people came. Last year there were three groups independently exploring the issue. This year a special committee is addressing the dominance by the selectboard over RTM and will advocate for RTM to control its own agenda.

RTM’s agenda should ensure that RTM has time to fulfill its duty of proposals and guidance. The selectboard members are only five people, and they’re not the only ones with brains. We need the diversity of opinion and imagination that all 140 reps can bring to RTM. There are national and global – not just local issues affecting this town. Don’t wait for Montpelier and sure don’t wait for Washington to make solutions. And don’t wait for the selectboard. They are too busy already. We need a hands-on approach, and we need all hands on deck. Many RTM members see a new RTM coming. If you want RTM to be a place where YOUR proposals are not ruled out by the selectboard, if you want an RTM that is responsive to the people and to the real issues of today, contact Brattleboro Common Sense. Register for the dinner and meeting Thursday evening, August 5:

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