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


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