Friday, January 27, 2006

What's town business, and why?

Abortion. Education property taxes.

Which of those two topics has enough local relevance to be discussed and voted on at town meeting? Or, perhaps neither of them are relevant enough, or maybe both of them meet the standard, you say.

Tough call. But it's one that town officials here made (sort of) in the last week. Leaders, generally speaking, reach points where they have to draw lines. Town leaders are no exception. In Stowe, we have a five-member select board, the governing body for town government policy, rules and decisions small and large. The board frequently finds itself in the position of making decisions based on what it's done in the past and whether the same standard would be applied to similar issues and questions.

The select board this week tackled the issue of parental notification for abortions, and whether an "advisory" vote at town meeting had enough local relevance (read: only town business at town meeting). The answer? Nope, the board decided unanimously. What about placing the question on the ballot, so people could vote in secret and not have to openly debate the issue? Nope, that's no good either, because ballot items need to somehow deal with money, the board said. This decision had nothing to do with the "merits" of parental notification, board members reasoned.

But then, in the same breath later this week, board members considered another similar question for the town meeting agenda. This one was an "advisory" resolution, requesting state officials stop shifting money from the state education fund, which in turn raises the burden on towns like Stowe to pay even higher property taxes for Vermont education spending.

A split 2-2 vote by the board meant this resolution wouldn't get on the agenda, either (Stay tuned for full coverage in next week’s Stowe Reporter).

Here’s where the debate seems to get fuzzy. Half of the board argued this resolution DID have local relevance, because this town is getting whacked with huge property tax increases year-after-year due in large part to the state’s education funding law, Act 68. The issue affects everybody’s wallets and pocket books, they argued.

The other half of the board didn’t disagreed about local relevance, however, seemed to think it wouldn’t do any good to pass such an advisory vote. Further, they argued, if you’re going to say "no" to the parental notification petition, you’d probably want to apply the same standard and say "no" to this one, too.

This isn’t unique to Stowe — towns and cities across Vermont are grappling with the same questions, and coming to different conclusions.

How can you make either argument, though, without considering the "merits" of the issue? If something isn’t "town business," then it seems you’ve decided — in your opinion — that the issue isn’t worthy of local debate and doesn’t affect people in a direct and tangible way.

The war in Iraq. Genetically-modified food. Abortion. Taxes. Impact fees. Nuclear waste. Where do YOU draw the line? When does an issue become "local" and by what standard do you judge something to be "affecting people" in your town or city? Is money the magic threshold, or perhaps broader notions of community well-being?

Tough calls. But here’s the kicker: Any citizen has the right to bring these issues up at town meeting, and — if there’s enough support — take a vote on the issue anyway. Cool.

— Scott Monroe

Friday, January 20, 2006

'The beards of town meeting' and other cool ideas

I-89 is in so much better condition in New Hampshire. That was pretty clear during my 2.5-hour drive yesterday from Stowe to Concord, NH.

I was the Stowe Reporter's lone emissary at a town meeting and budget workshop at the Concord Monitor, a daily newspaper located in the capital city. In fact, I was Vermont's only representative at this three-hour teach-in hosted by the New England Society of Newspaper Editors.

Definitely a cool thing to go to in the lead-up to town meeting. Budget-chopping season is winding down here in Stowe, and people are getting ready to set the spending plan, tax rate, and priorities for the coming year. With about a month-and-a-half to go before town meeting, our editorial staff is coming up with plans for coverage, both before and after the annual gathering.

The workshop's first speaker, Susan Slack of the New Hampshire Local Government Center, gave a great talk on town meeting in New England and how it's viewed by town government officials. Interesting that New Hampshire — like Vermont and other New England states — is seeing more towns experimenting with secret-ballot voting in which people vote at the polls on most issues, and do not have a regular town meeting discussion. Our upside-down neighbor has the so-called SB2 system, or Senate Bill 2, which town governments can adopt in place of town meetings (they also call their town-meeting warnings, "warrants." How weird?).

Vermonters more commonly know SB2 voting as something akin to the Australian ballot — clearly because Australia and Vermont are kindred spirits. Actually, there's a pretty good explanation of that here.

Anyway, reporters and editors shared their views on budget and town-meeting coverage as well, and I came away with some ideas for the Stowe Reporter. Many of the coverage ideas dealt with human-interest angles. That is, coverage that personalizes "the meeting" and "the budget" in amusing and telling ways. Whether any of these see light of day here at the Reporter remains to be seen, but here are some of my favorites:

• "The beards of town meeting." Speaks for itself. This kind of photo collage might be interesting in other permutations as well, such as "the plaid shirts of town meeting," and "the knitters of town meeting," etc.

• Glance boxes, glance boxes, glance boxes. These are the shaded boxes you'll see floating next to stories that usually showcase quick, important facts or phrases that are meant to give you a snapshot of the story.

• Candidate profile capsules. Another variation on the glance box, which would accompany profile stories on select board and school board candidates. The idea is to give readers a fast look at the 5 W’s: who, what, where, why and when.

• Newcomers' perspectives. Town meeting as seen my someone who's new to town, and a primer on what this unique New England tradition is really all about.

• Town thumbnail sketches. This might be better suited for a bigger daily newspaper, but why not in Lamoille County? The idea is to show a map and corresponding "thumbnails" next to each town that show its population, budget comparisons, tax rate and town-meeting issues.

Beneath all the numbers, budgets, and meetings, there's something that's far more interesting and worthwhile about the town meeting season for a community. Bottom-line: We're jazzed up at the Reporter for town meeting, and hope you are, too. After all, this could be the last "regular" town meeting in Stowe if voters choose to adopt the municipal budget by Australian ballot. Stay tuned, maties.

— Scott Monroe

Monday, January 16, 2006

Cashman coverage is bankrupt

This is depressing.

An Associated Press report this weekend shows that a court transcript "undercuts" the "assertions by some" that Judge Edward Cashman doesn't "believe" in prison sentences as adequate punishment. State lawmakers and the governor have suggested Cashman made such a statement in the sentencing of a convicted sex offender.

What's depressing, at least to me, is that politicians (including national talk-show ideologue Bill O'Reilly) were allowed to spin the story, create myth, and the press let them run with it. "The press," by the way, I think can fairly be described as the state's top daily newspapers: the Burlington Free Press, and jointly the Times Argus and Rutland Herald, via the Vermont Press Bureau.

This controversial topic was allowed to boil down to a "he said/she said" issue, when information was readily available that would have "undercut" the "assertions by some" much earlier in the ball game.

Granted, this particular court transcript apparently wasn't a public document until Friday. Still, this myth that somehow Judge Cashman didn't value prison punishment was repeated in the press echo chamber so many times that it went unchallenged. The court transcript clearly states that Cashman didn't think prison terms were enough — i.e., sex offender treatment is needed, too.

Lest you think I'm standing atop a pedestal here — I've certainly fallen prey to such coverage before. I understand that amid the pressures of deadline, reporting and writing it's difficult sometimes to do the extra legwork; it's easier sometimes to get that quote instead of that fact. As a journalist, what I take away from all this is a reminder to avoid reliance on "he said/she said" formula whenever possible. If your mother says she loves you, as the axiom goes, check it out.

Otherwise, that's how mountains can certainly be made out of molehills, and that's partly the case here. The larger issue of sentencing for criminals is an important debate, but coverage is been heavy on Cashman, Cashman, Cashman, and whether he should be crucified for his light sentencing or disrespect for the judicial system. And, now faced with proposed legislation to end his tenure as a judge, Cashman is in a big pickle when the press lets myth become common knowledge.

Cashman, the Times Argus reports today, is among the top issues now at the Statehouse. Interesting it's Cashman, not the state's criminal sentencing law, that's in the hot seat.

— Scott Monroe

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Interested in conflict

Who ever said small-town government is a yawner? A quick google search doesn't lead me to any immediate results, so onto the next question.

Who ever said government is a "ugly necessity"? Ah, that would be novelist and journalist Gilbert K. Chesterton (1874-1936), who makes a pretty good observation.

So, government's ugly and necessary. And small-town government — i.e. what runs the show here in Stowe and most Vermont communities — is no exception. Further, it can at times be exciting, contentious and almost always a vehicle for a better society.

Which is why it's cool Stowe's having this debate about conflict of interest. The chairman of the development review board, Allan Coppock, sounded the horns last week after attending a meeting of the planning commission. He was stunned that a planning commissioner, Chuck Baraw, decided to participate in a discussion that would benefit him. Baraw owns one of the biggest hotels in town, the Stoweflake, and at the meeting he argued for changing zoning rules so more hotel rooms would be allowed in the Mountain Road area which happens to also contain his massive resort and spa.

Why, Coppock wondered aloud in a letter to the editor this week, didn't Baraw recuse himself from the discussion when he had a personal stake in the issue?

Whether or not a conflict of interest was allowed to slip by is open to debate. Baraw will tell you (he told me) that Coppock was making a mountain out of a molehill, because his resort can't get much bigger than it already is. Baraw just saw his involvement in the discussion as another viewpoint — in fact, the only such view from an active resort owner.

Coppock will tell you (he also told me) that he perceived a conflict of interest, and even if there's the PERCEPTION that town government isn't operating fairly and for the community, than something has to be done. It's worth noting that aside from the seven-member planning commission, there were only two other perceivers at the meeting — Coppock and our commission reporter Lisa McCormack.

So, when the dust settles on this issue (it already has in the minds of some, who think the whole thing was blown out of proportion) at least we will have had an important discussion in public. Town officials and citizens form government collectively, and without the participation of one or the other it ain't gonna work. Here's hoping the ensuing debate remains civil, and we walk away with a better understanding of each other and the roles we play in this community.

But that doesn't mean this whole back-and-forth needs to be a yawner. Conflict can be a good thing — when it's interesting.

— Scott Monroe