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Vermont sees community engagement in politics through annual 'Town Meetings'

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Vermont sees community engagement in politics through annual 'Town Meetings'


  • In some Vermont towns, residents hold an annual meeting to discuss and vote on local issues.
  • Town Meeting is a tradition that, in Vermont, dates back more than 250 years, to before the founding of the republic.
  • Last year, residents of neighboring Morristown voted to switch to a secret ballot system, ending their town meeting tradition.

Julie wants more donations to the food pantry. Kipp is busy knitting a sweater. Shorty is ready to ask: Why is so much being spent on a truck? The coffee, fresh-baked bread and donuts have been laid out. Eighty-seven voters have squeezed into the Elmore Town Hall.

Town Meeting is about to begin. Moderator Jon Gailmor stands up.

“Good morning, everyone, and welcome to democracy,” he says. “This is the real thing, and we should all be proud that we’re doing this.”

‘VERMONT DELIVERED ON ALL FRONTS’: RESIDENTS AND BUSINESS OWNERS REVEAL WHY PEOPLE ARE FLOCKING TO THE STATE

Across the United States, people are disgusted with politics. Many feel powerless and alienated from their representatives at every level — and especially from those in Washington. The tone long ago became nasty, and many feel forced to pick a side and view those on the other side as adversaries.

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Town Clerk Sandra Lacasse places a sign outside the town office on March 5, 2024, when the town holds its annual Town Meeting in Elmore, Vermont. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

But in pockets of New England, democracy is done a bit differently. People can still participate directly and in person. One day each year, townsfolk gather to hash out local issues. They talk, listen, debate, vote. And in places like Elmore, once it’s all over, they sit down together for a potluck lunch.

Town Meeting is a tradition that, in Vermont, dates back more than 250 years, to before the founding of the republic. But it is under threat. Many people feel they no longer have the time or ability to attend such meetings. Last year, residents of neighboring Morristown voted to switch to a secret ballot system, ending their town meeting tradition.

Not so in Elmore, population 886. Its residents are used to holding tight to traditions. They’ve fought to keep open their post office, their store and their school, the last one-room schoolhouse in the state. Last fall, Elmore residents voted 2-1 in favor of keeping their town meetings.

Elmore calls itself the beauty spot of Vermont. The town borders a lake, which in early March is dotted with people ice fishing. Beyond, a mountain rises. At night, steam floats up from sugarhouses, where maple sap is being boiled down into syrup.

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The heartbeat of the town is the store. “I’ve always said it’s a live, living, breathing creature. I don’t own it; she owns me,” says Kathy Miller, 63, a longtime former owner who still helps out at the store. People would come in not only to buy milk and pick up the mail, Miller recalls, but to use the fax machine, find a plumber or just to swap gossip.

After joining the state grocers’ association in the 1980s, Miller testified before Congress about the impact of credit card fees. Back then, she believed that little people could have a voice in national politics. But these days, she says, Washington has gotten away from the basics. Too big, she says. Too messed up. Tilted off its axis.

Miller describes herself as a Republican who hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid. But at Town Meeting, she says, political differences don’t mean a thing.

“There’s no animosity,” she says. “People can talk about things. You shake hands with your neighbor when you leave.”

At Town Meeting, she’s successful in pushing for an increase to the town’s library funding from $1,000 per year to $3,000.

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Gailmor, 75, is a singer-songwriter who describes himself as an independent voter. He first moved to Elmore in 1980 and says he found the town meeting tradition nothing short of miraculous. It wasn’t some politician spouting off but real people taking part. He was so inspired that he even wrote a song about it.

“Greet the old town folks, hear the gossip and the jokes, dip a donut in a good strong cup of Joe,” Gailmor sings. “Find your favorite chair, plant your buttocks there — we’re getting down to business, don’t you know.”

At town meetings, people sometimes go beyond voting on local issues and decide to take a stand on national issues of the day. At home, Gailmor holds a photograph of his late wife, Cathy Murphy, when she was speaking out against nuclear weapons at an Elmore Town Meeting in the 1980s.

This year, Elmore decides to take a stance on another broader issue by adopting a declaration of inclusion. It states the town will welcome all people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Frank Bryan, a retired University of Vermont professor who wrote a book about town meetings, coined the term “forced civility” to describe the way people dealing with disagreements in person are compelled to recognize each other’s common humanity in a way that larger-scale political interactions do not allow.

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But just having voters show up for hours on a weekday morning is challenging. Morristown is one of many Vermont towns to end the tradition of town meetings. Richard Watts, the director of the Center for Research on Vermont at UVM, says people in larger towns tend to feel less sense of connection.

There’s a key downside when a town moves to secret ballot, also known as an Australian ballot because states there were the first to adopt such a system in the mid-19th century: It’s usually a straight up-or-down vote. That means people can’t make tweaks or debate issues. And for some, the open, collegial debate is the genius of the entire system.

Elmore’s Town Meeting has been going for nearly four hours. What has unfolded represents a cross-section of democracy, of people choosing for themselves how to live and work and govern.

An impassioned speech by Julie Bomengen secures an extra $500 for the Lamoille Community Food Share, raising Elmore’s annual contribution to $750.

VERMONT RESIDENT MAKES ‘UNSETTLING’ DISCOVERIES ON PROPERTY AS MIGRANT CRISIS HITS NORTHERN BORDER

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Several people have been criticizing the town’s spending habits. Others argue that replacing equipment like the road maintenance truck will only end up costing more if the can is kicked down the road. “We have just spent two-and-a-half million on this new garage, and then we go out and put $300,000 into a new truck. I think that’s a little overkill,” Shorty Towne tells the crowd.

After exhaustive discussions, Elmore’s annual town budget of $1.1 million is passed in a voice vote. There is no dissent.

Gailmor commends townsfolk for holding a lively and well-attended meeting. Kipp Bovey, who has been active in the meeting, has made good progress on knitting her sweater. Towne has had his say about the truck. Democracy has unfolded on a small canvas. And the much-discussed American political polarization? It’s nowhere in sight.

It’s time to adjourn.

“Lunch is cold,” Gailmor says. “But it will be in the church.”

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Legislature advances measures to improve Vermont’s response to animal cruelty

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Legislature advances measures to improve Vermont’s response to animal cruelty


BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) – A suspected animal cruelty case at a goat farm in Charlotte two years ago has helped drive a push at the Statehouse this year to create a Division of Animal Welfare.

The House passed the bill, H.626, last week, and the Senate could take it up soon. Some lawmakers say it’s long past time for the state to take charge of animal welfare complaints to ensure they are handled effectively.

Cat Viglienzoni spoke with Seven Days’ Kevin McCallum, who reported on the story in this week’s issue.

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Suspect charged in alleged arson at Bernie Sanders’ Vermont office pleads not guilty | CNN Politics

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Suspect charged in alleged arson at Bernie Sanders’ Vermont office pleads not guilty | CNN Politics




CNN
 — 

The man charged in connection with an alleged arson at Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office in Vermont pleaded not guilty on Tuesday, court records show.

Shant Soghomonian, 35, was charged earlier this month with using fire to damage the building in Burlington.

During his arraignment on Tuesday, Judge Kevin J. Doyle ordered pretrial motions on both sides to be filed by July 22, according to court records. Last week, the judge had ordered Soghomonian to be detained pending further proceedings.

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CNN has reached out to Soghomonian’s public defender for comment.

Soghomonian allegedly entered the building on April 5 and went to the third floor, where the independent senator’s offices are located, according to court records cited by the Justice Department.

“Soghomonian was recorded on a security video spraying a liquid near the outer door of the office and then lighting the area with a handheld lighter,” according to a DOJ news release.

He left through a staircase as the blaze spread, the Justice Department said, and the fire damaged the outside of the office door and surrounding areas, with sprinklers discharged on multiple floors.

Multiple employees were in the well-known progressive senator’s office at the time of the fire, and it’s unknown how many other people were in the building. No injuries were reported in the incident.

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If convicted, Soghomonian could face between five and 20 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine, according to the Justice Department.



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La Montañuela and D'Aversa Furniture to Open Wine Bar-Showroom in Vergennes

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La Montañuela and D'Aversa Furniture to Open Wine Bar-Showroom in Vergennes


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  • Camila Carrillo and Nathan D’Aversa in front of 10 Green Street

Married couple Camila Carrillo and Nathan D’Aversa will combine their crafts to open a shared wine bar and furniture showroom at 10 Green Street in Vergennes.

Carrillo, 31, will run the wine bar in addition to making her La Montañuela wine and coferments as part of Gruppo Garagista in Barnard. More than a tasting room, the bar will offer her wines alongside others from Vermont and beyond.

“It’s definitely a place for me to showcase my wines,” Carrillo said. “But my goal is to make Vermont wine accessible with glass pours, and it will also focus on hybrid wines from all over the world and wines that I love that complement the Vermont wine scene.”

When the bar opens in late summer or early fall, the menu will feature simple snacks such as “really good bread and butter,” olives, and desserts, Carrillo said. In the future, she hopes to have friends with food businesses host pop-ups.

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The couple had planned to open a tasting room on their land in New Haven, where Carrillo planted vines last year. But they fell in love with the big-windowed antique store space above the former City Limits Night Club in the building’s basement.

Furniture maker D’Aversa, 34, will move his shop on-site and furnish the bar with his modern pieces made from Vermont-harvested wood. “When you’re drinking wine and hanging out, you’re sitting in one of my chairs,” he said. “It will be ever evolving, with rotating furniture and art.”

“It will be like your second — very nice — living room,” Carrillo added.



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