Towns across Vermont have been seeing fewer and fewer people turn out for Town Meeting Day in recent years. Cambridge still has decent attendance figures, but it hasn’t been immune to voter apathy come March, and town leaders are hoping to reverse that downward trend.
The Cambridge Community Engagement Team, formed by the town select board in April to address “community engagement issues raised” at Town Meeting Day, has been working all spring and summer, studying how to get more people to attend town meeting, and to get them involved in local government in general.
“The select board organized the committee in response to voters’ requests for change,” Tyler Machia, the group’s chairman, said.
The centerpiece of that work so far has centered on an online survey that was open to Cambridge’s 3,100 voters from late spring through the summer.
The survey was completed by just over eight percent of that populace, 265 responses, and asked voters what the main barriers were that kept them from participating in town meeting and local government.
Since the survey closed at the end of August the committee has been studying the results to identify any quick or long-term fixes that could be recommended to the select board to increase Town Meeting Day attendance and participation. The group will be presenting its findings and recommendations to the board in a report due at the end of October.
One of the solutions the committee has been focused on since the survey closed is how to help people understand how town meeting works.
“There was some contention at town meeting this year. Some articles sparked debate and people didn’t quite understand the procedures,” Machia said.
He said that made it look like the people running the meeting weren’t being open to community involvement and changes when really it was “partially from people not knowing what was going on.”
Machia said one of the committee’s tasks is looking at “how to make people more comfortable with Town Meeting Day.”
The survey results show that should be a priority: 157 people said they understand the issues that come up at town meeting, but 58 weren’t sure and 45 didn’t think they understood the issues.
When asked what the major barriers to attending town meeting, 38 people said they didn’t know the rules that govern Town Meeting Day.
Just getting more information about Town Meeting Day, and what is decided there, to voters will also be key moving forward.
On a question about the barriers that keep people from attending Town Meeting Day or other important local government meetings, a total of 64 responded that they didn’t feel connected to the issues being discussed. Another 48 said they don’t go because they don’t know what the meetings are about, and 66 said they often simply don’t know there are meetings to attend.
To help overcome those issues, the committee has been studying ways to better get the word out about Town Meeting Day. Updating the town website to make it more friendly and accessible is one idea. So is live-streaming town meeting.
“That would allow access to those who want to watch, at least,” Machia said.
Machia has worked on videos explaining the town meeting day process, and the Community Engagement Team has discussed handing out instructional flyers in March. The team also went over the current Town Meeting Day warning to see if it can be simplified to appear less imposing, perhaps by rewording articles to make them more understandable or if adding new articles could drum up more involvement.
Accessible to more
One of the other barriers keeping people from attending Town Meeting Day is a lack of child care, which 32 people cited as a factor keeping them from turning out in March. The committee has been reaching out to see what adding child care could look like in Cambridge. That type of service being offered during town meeting is a fairly new idea, but more and more towns, including Johnson, are making the service available.
One possible change that’s come up in both Cambridge and across the state is the idea of moving the time and/or day town meeting is held. Scheduling was cited by 139 people in the survey as a barrier keeping them from attending.
Still, when asked what issues they would like to see the committee address, determining an actual town meeting day was about the least important priority.
The most important: switching over some decisions like town-wide elections to Australian Ballot votes.
Machia doesn’t think switching the time and day of the meeting will have a positive affect on attendance. He said studies show that change actually reduces attendance.
“We were open to the idea of changing, but there isn’t a lot of data that shows it’s a benefit to change the times,” Machia said.
Other possible ways to increase participation, including increasing the size of the select board from three members to five or more, haven’t really been addressed yet, according to Machia.
The Cambridge Community Engagement Team plans to submit their report and recommendations this fall, but they’re open to continuing their work through the winter.
Some of the recommendations made by the team may not go into effect until voters approve them, on Town Meeting Day, 2018.