A Town Solves a Problem Transcript
Back to the A Town Solves a Problem episode.
[Sound of bell ringing, archival movie audio]
Film Narrator: On Town Meeting Day, the church bells bring the people out…they gather at their town hall, the center of every town’s civic life.
The black-and-white film is called “A Town Solves a Problem.” It’s a scripted production, set in Pittsford, Vermont. We see a one-room schoolhouse, people shoveling snow, a full-serve gas station…and town meeting.
Film narrator: They meet old friends, gossip a bit, and exchange news. And make plans for another busy year ahead.
The film was produced by the US Army in 1950 to advance democracy in occupied countries after World War Two. The Army believed that Vermont’s Town Meeting tradition offered an example of how democracies operate best.
Film narrator: They look forward to this get-together when they elect new officers and discuss common problems of the town.
“A Town Solves a Problem” is one of the films in the collections at the Vermont Historical Society. You can view it on their website, or at beforeyourtime.org.
It shows a Vermont from long ago that still seems familiar, maybe because most towns in Vermont still meet on the first Tuesday in March to solve their problems.
Town meeting is central to our identity as a little state on a human scale that does things differently. But what happens to town meeting when it needs to change during a pandemic?
Or when it changes, because Vermont itself has changed?
This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and Vermont Humanities. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode, we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.
We’re releasing today’s episode on the eve of town meeting, 2021. Town meeting this year will be different. In most Vermont towns, citizens won’t be called by church bells to meet in person and vote from the floor. They’ll vote by ballot, or try to meet later in the year.
In this episode, we’ll look at some of the changes that had to be made to town meeting. And we’ll talk about some of the threats that town meeting has faced in recent years. We’ll also return to that Army film set in Pittsford.
But let’s start in the collections of the Vermont Historical Society with a grouping of objects related to democracy. And we’ll welcome the new collections manager, Teresa Greene, to our podcast for the first time.
Teresa Greene: So we have four small wooden boxes. They each have slits on the top and lids that slide out. Three of them are labeled. We’ve got town representative, justice of the peace and representative to Congress.
Amanda Gustin: And when you say small, I mean, they’re really small, they’re anything like the size I would have imagined a ballot box.
Teresa: Yeah, it’s about the size of my hand. Maybe about four inches by three inches. And about three inches tall.
Amanda: So you can imagine the ballots to stuff in there were not like the ballots that we have today where you have to vote on a number of things. This would have been just…you scribble a name on a piece of paper.
Teresa: Yeah, picture a business card. You have to fold the business card in half to be able to get it down through the slot.
These ballot boxes were used in elections in Waterford, and they date from the middle of the nineteenth century.
Amanda: I like, too, we talk a lot in museums about where patterns and patterns of use and when I look at these boxes, there are a couple of things that jump out to me. On the Justice of the Peace box. Whether it was varnished all around the hole at the top, it’s all worn away. So you can really see, over however many years these were used, people stuffing again and again and again and their fingers just grazing the side of that slot as they put the names in the box.
Teresa: For sure. That box actually is more worn around that the slot than it is where you can take the lid off.
They represent different sides to democracy in Vermont: on the one hand, they’re simple, basic, and something the town would have returned to year after year for elections. On the other hand…
Amanda: It has that sort of democratic equal feel to it. But again, probably when these were made, whole portions of Vermont’s population would not have been able to use them to vote.
Teresa: Oh, yeah, for sure.
Amanda: It’s sort of an interestingly tangled history. We think and talk a lot about town meeting and we praise it and we think very highly of it in Vermont. But like almost anything else with participation in a democracy. It’s caught up in a lot of inequality over American history.
Film narrator: Snow comes early to the farms of Vermont. Life slows down in pace, but the long winters have made these New Englanders neighborly and interdependent.
We cherish the idea of town meeting here in Vermont. But what feels like our special tradition has had a global impact.
Stephen Belcher: He was working in the New York field office of the Reorientation Branch Office of the Undersecretary Department of the Army, and that was a division that was responsible for putting together educational and frankly indoctrination materials for distribution. And their particular focus was Japan.
This is Stephen Belcher, talking about his father, Pat Belcher.
Stephen: They wanted to do something about Vermont town meetings, because it seemed to be a sort of classic form of local democracy and especially a sort of grassroots up kind of democracy.
Stephen: They were handed the topic on a platter. I think it was in the 1949 town report minutes, the town reported how in the previous year the issue had come up of setting up a hot lunch program for students in the various schools.
Film narrator: Twelve o’clock is lunchtime, and the students eagerly collect their lunches, which their mothers packed that morning. As Mrs. Croft looks on, she thinks again how much better it would be for these children if they could have a hot lunch at noontime instead of cold sandwiches.
Pat Belcher helped create “A Town Solves a Problem.” Over fifteen minutes it shows how one small village school in Pittsford successfully lobbied for funding from the town to install a kitchen to provide hot lunch for its students.
Film narrator: Mrs. Davis knows well that everyone, including her husband, must campaign everywhere to win support, their school district is just a small part of Pittsford and the annual meeting is coming soon. It’s a big, important event. Everyone will be there to vote. So the parents ask everyone to support their project.
Stephen: It’s a really good example of grassroots networking and building a movement towards a goal. And one of the wonderful things about it is that it’s the women who do the grassroots networking. The men show up mainly as curmudgeons at town meetings, speaking against the proposal.
Film narrator: But some do not like new ideas, and the opposition spokesman argues that many things must be considered when the taxpayers’ money is an issue.
Stephen: It’s the women who build the motivation to get the hot lunches and who then sort of force the people to negotiate the solution.
“A Town Solves a Problem” was filmed on-location in Pittsford in 1950, with local residents playing the same roles they’d played in real life the year before.
Film narrator: Since this proposal involves the appropriation of new funds, the reasons for it must be stoutly presented, and interest runs high.
The film itself is simple but powerful. From grassroots organizing to the town meeting itself, it’s presented as a success story of the democratic process.
Film narrator: Dr. Benson, the much-respected town physician, asks to speak. He is concerned about preventing illness among schoolchildren and urges this expenditure of public money as a means of protecting health.
Film narrator: And so a vote is called for from the floor. Now, arguments for and against are all in. Each person must make up his own mind. Yes or no? The ballots, of course, are secret, but the counting is done in the open by tellers elected by the people. The vote is yes.
The film traveled around the world under the auspices of the United States Army, which screened it for small communities with local language narration.
Stephen: He did have some interesting reflections, if I can find them about some of his hopes for the effect of the movie in Japan. “And it is to be hoped that all the Mrs. Snows and Mrs. Bumps in Japan may be tempted to follow in Mrs. Snow’s and Mrs. Bump’s footsteps and take their rightful place in a democracy.”
Stephen: It’s an example of what we should be doing, I think I would say. Because it really is people talking to each other, respecting each other, expressing differing opinions without dissing the other side, which seems to be all too frequently a current strategy.
Stephen: And I think I’m conditioned in that point of view a little bit by my father, who was always willing to listen to the other side and to take their point of view into account, even when he disagreed with it, but also to try and figure out where the common ground was, where the meeting points were, where the common areas of interest might lie.
Film narrator: Hot lunches now for the children. A gift of good health from the people of a town that can solve its own problems.
Rep. Copeland-Hanzas: It was it was almost a year ago, probably about March 10th or 11th, when the Secretary of State’s office and the election staff came to sit down in the cafeteria with me.
Sarah Copeland-Hanzas is a Democrat from Bradford, and she has been a state representative since 2004. Sarah is chair of the Government Operations Committee.
Sarah: To talk about what we might need to do, in the event that this strange disease that was called Covid-19 turned into the pandemic that they were predicting it would.
After the conversation in the State House cafeteria, the legislature acted to permit more mail-in voting for the fall 2020 election.
But by September, it was clear the pandemic was going to be around for a while. It might not be possible to hold in-person town meetings in March of 2021. This presented a bit of a Catch-22.
Sarah: In typical times, if a town wants to switch from doing an in-person town meeting to some form of in-person and Australian ballot or to go wholly to Australian ballot, they would have to hold that vote at town meeting one year, in order to make it apply to the town meeting the following year.
Sarah helped sponsor legislation that would allow select boards to decide if they wanted to hold their 2021 town meetings by Australian ballot. This allows voting by mail or by a drop box, instead of by the floor votes that happen at many town meetings.
Sarah: We also gave municipal bodies the ability to move the date of their annual meeting.
Some towns may choose to hold their meetings outdoors, after the weather warms. But while many people have gotten used to holding meetings by Zoom—including the state legislature and many community boards—video conferencing was not an option for town meetings.
Sarah: The secretary of state’s office did a lot of investigating of this and came to the conclusion that there would likely be too many people who either, because they have poor Internet connection or because they don’t have a computer or Internet, would be potentially disenfranchized.
Sarah said that it seems that more Vermont communities will use Australian balloting for their town meeting this year, instead of waiting to hold an in-person meeting outdoors. But it varies…just like town meeting itself.
Sarah: Some communities will have an informational meeting and then everything’s Australian ballot. Other communities will have maybe the budget and elections conducted by Australian ballot, but all of the other town business is conducted an in-person meeting.
But town meeting is about more than just conducting the business of the town. It’s also about getting together with your neighbors.
Sarah: Town meeting time in many communities is a potluck supper, if you have a Monday night town meeting. Or it’s the luncheon that’s put on by different civic organizations on town meeting Tuesday.
Even before Covid, some communities had opted to hold votes by Australian ballot. Those who can’t make an in-person meeting can still vote on key issues this way.
But will this pandemic year be the beginning of the end for in-person town meetings?
Sarah: I have certainly heard that that worry expressed. That this year, when so many more communities are going to move to Australian ballot, that it will be the preference of residents to continue doing it that way.
Sarah: But, you know, it’s hard to say because so many people who attend town meeting really enjoy the act of being physically present there with your community members, hearing the debate, hearing the pros and cons for why you might want to raise the fire department’s budget.
Sarah: All of these debates that we typically have at town meeting, while they can feel long and difficult at the time, are actually a pretty wonderful and unique example of this direct democracy that we have in town meeting.
Meg Mott: You know, I use the word citizenship a lot. Do we want to be citizens? Well, this is a glorious occupation.
Meg Mott is a political theory professor, a constitutional scholar, and the moderator at Putney’s town meeting.
Meg: You don’t even have to have a job and you can be a citizen. You don’t have to have a fancy place to live or drive a fancy car, and you’re still a citizen. And we’re all equal when we come to town meeting, in expressing our opinion and listening to others.
At town meeting, Meg says that she’s often aware of the awesome power held in the room, whether it’s a school gymnasium, cafeteria, or town hall.
Meg: This is a moment where we get to do what democracy offers, to be bigger than ourselves, to be more than our private concerns, to carry the concerns of the community on our shoulders together.
Audio from Putney town meeting: All those in favor of the amendment, please say, “aye.” All those in favor say “nay.” Looks like the amendment passes…
Meg: So, yeah, we get tired and our butts get tired. We have to stand and stretch. But I do feel like people get that tingle when the vote happens. It’s like, “Wow, we just did it. OK, next article.”
Audio from Putney town meeting: It’s been moved and seconded to amend…
Despite the long history of Vermont’s town meeting, it’s changed a lot in recent years. Many small schools moved into consolidated districts after Act 46 passed in 2018. In those districts, school meetings are now held separately from town meetings. Putney is one of those towns.
Meg: I think that’s had a negative effect on participation in general, because you want new families, people with young kids, they’re going to have different concerns and you want them to be part of the mix on Town Meeting Day.
Another trend is offering informational meetings on a day when more people can attend – such as on a weekend – and then voting by Australian ballot on Town Meeting Day.
Meg: I am going to be very sad, though, if people think, well, we just had an information meeting and that seemed great, because I didn’t have to actually go and sit with my neighbors all day and I could just Zoom in and have my questions answered by the select board and then I could vote in the voting booth…That makes me a little worried because I don’t want people to confuse those information meetings with true deliberation. They’re completely different animals.
Australian balloting requires straight yes or no votes, instead of discussions and modifications from the floor.
Meg: If you want to change it, you want to revise it, that’s off the table. So people say, this is great, go with Australian ballot, you’ll get more participation, that means greater democracy. But from a citizenship viewpoint, no, it’s terrible. In my opinion.
Vermont is one of the few states that still has the town meeting tradition. It’s why the film was made here in 1950.
But maybe “A Town Solves a Problem” needs to be rebooted today…but this time for an American audience.
Meg: We used to have opportunities for people to come together with different points of view and through a process of deliberation achieve a solution that the majority of the people agreed with. And that process of coming together with strangers to deliberate is becoming…I’d put it on the endangered species list.
Town meeting in Vermont has provided – and still provides, in most years, in most towns – that opportunity. Jury duty offers this as well, although Meg notes that many trials don’t go to juries any more.
Meg: What does it mean when to a democracy when people don’t deliberate? We’re pretty much not a democracy. We are an administrative state that makes decisions based on expert opinion and rules by fiat, not by decision making…So people are not learning how to deliberate, which means they lose trust in being a citizen. They lose trust in themselves. They lose trust in each other.
This lack of trust can be seen online, where people say things to strangers that they might hesitate to say to their neighbors.
But even during this pandemic year, we may need to hold in-person town meetings. Some town budgets will get voted down by Australian ballot on Tuesday, March 2. They might only be resolved at an in-person meeting, once the weather warms and people can come together again.
Meg: The worst thing for democracy is the atomizing tendencies of late capitalism, if I could sound like a Marxist for a moment. Where we get more and more pushed into our own little private spheres. And we have very little trust in ourselves and in others around us.
Meg: And I see town meeting and the process of deliberation as the check on that atomizing. That’s the antidote. Because it reminds people that we make better decisions with each other than alone in our little rooms.
Meg: To quote Aristotle, “The many, when they meet together, may very likely be better than the few good.” And he was talking about technocrats at that point, elites who could make the best judges. No, he says, “The many, the people.”
Aristotle’s quote continues, with a reference that seems tailor-made to our town meeting tradition.
Meg: “Just as a feast to which many contribute is better than a dinner provided out of a single purse.” A potluck could be better than just one person’s paying for the meal.
Before Your Time is presented by Vermont Humanities and the Vermont Historical Society. This episode was produced by Amanda Gustin and Ryan Newswanger, with help from Hannah Kirkpatrick and with research assistance from Fred Pond.
Thanks to our guests: Teresa Greene, Stephen Belcher, Representative Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, and Meg Mott. And thanks to Brattleboro Community TV for the recording of the Putney town meeting.
This episode is part of the “Why it Matters: Civics and Electoral Participation” initiative sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Federation for State Humanities Councils.
Visit our website, Before Your Time dot org, to find photos related to this episode, as well as the complete “A Town Solves a Problem” film. And if you like what you hear, please tell your friends about the podcast. Thanks for listening!