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

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