Every year in the spring, small towns throughout New England host their annual town meeting. Town meetings take place in high school gyms or town halls, and anyone can come. In fact, in Vermont, Town Meeting Day is a public holiday. Everyone gets the day off work to make sure they have the chance to participate. It’s a moment when everyone who lives there can come together to talk out the issues facing the town and decide how they want to spend their money.
Radio producer Erica Heilman lives in Vermont and is the host of a jewel of a podcast called Rumble Strip. It’s ostensibly all about life in Vermont, but it may just also be about life in general.
Erica been going to town meetings since she was a kid. It’s not always easy. There are lots of disagreements, but people have to learn to disagree civilly because in a small town you have to rely on one another. A lot of these small towns depend on volunteers to function, and town meeting is the place where those roles get decided. For better or worse, they’re a key part of life in many New England towns.
Rumble Strip is an absolute gem of a podcast and Erica Heilman is one of the most poignant storytellers I have ever heard. I am a native west coaster but found her podcast in my twenties when I followed my romantic notion of moving to Vermont. For the few years I lived there, her well-crafted stories helped me make sense of where I was living. Her interviews made the towns and histories and the people come alive as if she was translating their meanings for me as a listener. Its about Vermont, and its not.
I am so glad to hear Erica’s work on 99pi. My favorite episodes are Finn and the Bell, The Museum of Everyday Life, Last Chapter, and any of the episodes in which she interviews her neighbor boy, Leland.
No, not everyone gets a day off. It is a state holiday but businesses are allowed to not consider it a paid, closed for business holiday.
It’s a nice idea, and I know you’re not a news program, but… a little fact checking could have gone a long way in the framing of this show. Town Meeting Day is a public holiday, so schools and public offices are closed, but most people do not get the day off work. So, this is great for people who work in public office. And for retired people. And for parents of schoolchildren with flexible work schedules and with children who are willing to sit still through hours of meetings.
For the rest of us, it means unpaid time off from work if we want to be part of “local democracy.” Which means, as fluffy and gee whiz as Town Meeting sounds in this audio, local government outcomes are almost always determined by a tiny fraction of a town’s population, representing retirees and the independently wealthy. In other words: there might be reasons this whole Barney Fife concept hasn’t taken off elsewhere. I’d love to hear the other side of this argument, from those working and parent voices silenced by the time constraints of Town Meeting Day.
Everyone does not get the day off only the State of Vermont employees. It’s outdated, most $ issues decided by ballot and most citizens cannot or do not attend. Large towns don’t do it all anymore. Cute idea in 1800 not 2022. imo Thanks
I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that these meetings happen in Vermont, the second whitest state in the United States. I cannot overstate how much of US politics is the way it is because a significant number of white people don’t consider Black people to be equal to them and equally deserving government services. Until we address this issue, there is no hope for participatory government, like what this episode is about, to succeed.