by Glenn Reed
(Swans - March 26, 2012) March 7, 2012. Town meeting day in Vermont.
It's been an open, mild winter here in the North Country. Only scattered patches of snow from a recent dusting persist in the woods, along stone walls, and on the north sides of houses. The full moon tonight gives that snow a bluish tint. Gnarled, bare branches of maples stretch to the clear, starry sky and the air is refreshingly cold and dry.
My feet crunch the gravel as I walk towards the town hall. The parking lot beside the building is packed with vehicles. Late arrivals park farther out along the dirt road that ambles past a farm and several 19th century houses and then dips and curves its way into the rolling hills of this southern end of the Champlain Valley. It's unusual to see all of these cars and pick-ups on a winter night in a town so small that there isn't even a general store or gas station here. There's such a stillness on these evenings that I feel compelled to whisper as I approach the front door of the town hall.
Welcome to town meeting! says a polite boy as I enter the building. He looks about nine years old. Behind him, the main meeting hall is packed with people sitting in fold-up chairs or grouped in small clusters along the walls and talking about the mild winter. A casually-dressed group, who are town officials, stand and wait on the small stage. In a back corner, Girl Scouts engage in their annual rite of selling cookies, while two women at another table sell drinks and homemade, baked goods.
This is town meeting night in Sudbury -- a town with about 560 residents. I've dropped by because I have not experienced this unique display of direct democracy since moving to the west coast 17 years ago. Tonight, those in attendance will vote on a proposed school budget, town budget, and for various town offices.
But I'm also here because this community is one of nearly 70 in Vermont that is addressing the national issue of corporate personhood and money as free speech. Specifically, Sudbury is voting on a resolution urging:
...the Vermont Congressional Delegation and the U.S. Congress to propose a U.S. Constitutional amendment for the states consideration which provides that money is not speech, and that corporations are not persons under the U.S. Constitution, that the General Assembly of the State of Vermont pass a similar resolution, and that the town send its resolution to Vermont state and federal representatives within thirty days of passage of this measure.
There's something about this scene that is symbolic of the fight against the United States Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (FEC) decision of January 21, 2010. This decision basically said that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money on election campaigns and affirmed the principle of corporations as people.
The current primary and caucus season in the United States has revealed the impact of that decision's affirmative nod to corporate personhood that opened the floodgates of big business money into our teetering democracy. There's talk of billions being spent on elections by the end of the year, the airwaves are flooded with misleading attack ads meant to inflame rather than educate or inform; the entire process seems to have degenerated into a non-stop, sound-byted, mean-spirited soap opera with the sole emphasis on winning and little regard for the country's welfare. Free speech seems to now be defined by how much money you have and there's no shortage of cash in the corporate sector and with a few billionaires. A plutocracy seems a growing reality.
In stark contrast is the small town meeting process. What does that mean here in Sudbury?
Citizens of all political stripes gathered together in a modest building. A sense of community. Listening to a neighbor that you don't agree with having his or her say, then talking to them afterwards about the bottle drive in the entranceway in support of the local school. No frills, no 30-second spots, no corporate sponsored VIP boxes or prime rib dinners. No identification checks for voice votes -- just the town moderator asking if there are any in attendance who are not residents and who shouldn't vote. No Diebold voting machines counting (or fixing) votes for select board members, planning board members, auditor and lister. The only vote that isn't decided unanimously determined by scraps of paper handed out to attendees, collected, and then counted, by-hand, by town officials.
This is direct democracy. Sometimes it's messy, sometimes frustrating, and sometimes it's in the shape of the gruff, older man who likes to complain about virtually everything and makes everyone roll their eyes, but who also waves every time you pass him on the back roads.
Town meeting has been a New England tradition since as far back as the 17th century and it has survived quite nicely into the high-tech-dominated 21st century. It's the backbone for communities such as Sudbury, like the stone walls that separate fields or hint of the past as they crumble deep inside the forests. It's as sturdy as the beams and posts that buttress this town hall, and the resolve of the farmers in these foothills that brave 0 degree winter mornings to milk rows of cows.
Tonight, looking around, I guess there are about 70 or 80 adults and scattered youth at the Sudbury meeting. The vast majority of adults appears to be over age 50. I wonder if it's the slow leak of population away from this rural community or lack of town meeting tradition in the younger generations. I wonder if any of those who are in their thirties are sitting in their homes, unconcerned about the school budget, channel-surfing because they're "too tired from work," smug with the tech devices that keep them connected to infinite amounts of information that can never be consumed and which can hardly substitute for human contact.
The town meeting proceeds very quickly. The only disagreement of the night is a result of the legislative report to the gathering from their elected representative to the state capitol in Montpelier. He mentions progress being made on a single-payer health care system that that the legislature approved last year and which the governor signed. The representative is a Republican, and very skeptical of what's happening on this front. Several questions are raised from meeting attendees about choice, big government, a creep towards socialism. I'm reminded that Sudbury is more conservative than Vermont as a whole and that it's fairly even in terms of numbers of Democrats and Republicans. I worry that this may be a harbinger of controversy on the corporate personhood vote.
The vote relating to the Citizens United v. FEC resolution is the last article (#10) on the town warrant, but it's reached in just over an hour. The town moderator reads it aloud and I wait for a debate to begin.
Someone asks if it's "...that thing related to Super PAC [Political Action Committee] money?" and another resident replies that it is. A bearded man of about 60 stands up and says: "It gives corporations the same rights as individual persons. I don't think that corporations should be allowed to give money on behalf of employees or stakeholders because they can all give as individual people. This would make the guys that wrote the Constitution freak out!"
Numerous people nod their heads or utter uh-huh, and when the moderator asks if there is any more discussion, no one raises their hands.
The vote in support of the resolution is unanimous.
Sudbury ended up being one of nearly 70 towns in Vermont to say no to corporate personhood and money as free speech. Only two towns didn't pass the non-binding resolution--one because residents felt it was not an appropriate topic for town meeting. The approving communities joined a growing, grassroots, democratic movement nationwide opposing the Supreme Court decision. The list includes such cities as Los Angeles; New York City; Portland, Oregon and Portland, Maine; Missoula, Montana; Duluth, Minnesota; and Boulder, Colorado. Many state legislatures and county governments have also taken, or are considering, action.
As I walk back to my car, the only sound comes from a stomping horse in a nearby barn, and I can't help thinking "this is truly what democracy looks like." And that the five Supreme Court members who voted in support of corporate personhood, and others such as the Koch Brothers, couldn't recognize such true democracy if they tried.
Or worse -- they do recognize it and want to wipe it out.
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About the Author
Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont. (back)