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Pipelines and Pie at Town Meeting

Winston Churchill said of democracy that is “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” That may also be a good description of Vermont town meeting.

Voters at town meeting are asked to make decisions through a process that can be imprecise, contentious, confusing, and ill informed.

But town meeting is also a heartwarming, feel-good occasion to do one’s civic duty in a friendly setting, while catching up with the neighbors and, if you live in the right town, getting a tasty meal. (The shepherd’s pie at Monday’s Cornwall town meeting was especially good.)

Again this year, local voters approved municipal and school budgets that totaled well into the millions of dollars. Yet the decision-making involved rapid skimming of data presented at town meeting and of lengthy documents that, it must be said, few of us read in any detail.

Mostly, we based our budget approvals on a sense that the tax rate won’t break the bank (this year, at least) and on the feeling that we can trust the judgment of our elected leaders.

I suspect, too, that many of us also voted to OK the budgets out of sheer gratitude that someone else did the heavy lifting to create the budgets in the first place.

Speaking as someone who lost his patience for committee meetings back in the 1980s, I’m just glad other people are willing to do the hard work to make local government run.

In the meantime, I live in slight terror that someone will ask me to sit on a board and I won’t be able to think of a good-enough excuse to decline the request.

I do aspire to be named fence viewer or weigher of the coal at some point before I die – but only because I’ve been assured those wonderful-sounding honorifics require absolutely no work at all.

I’m thankful for those people who sit on select boards, planning commissions, school boards, and capital improvement committees. I’m especially grateful to the volunteers who staff the fire departments and ambulances.

Every year at town meeting, I want to stand up and say something appropriately corny about how grateful I am — because I know other people feel the same way, and because there’s a place for being a little corny at the venerable institution of town meeting.

Every year, though, I’m saving my comments for something more timely.

This year, it was the proposal to put the town on record as opposing a plan to pump toxic tar sands oil in a pipeline that runs through Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Thanks to the Cornwall Select Board, the proposal was part of the town’s official agenda warning. Cornwall voters passed the resolution by unanimous voice vote — thereby joining many other Vermont towns in opposing this major environmental threat.

As local House Rep. Willem Jewett said Monday evening, voters’ support for environmental review of the tar sands proposal will make it easier to enact legislation requiring that the pipeline proposal go through a rigorous Act 250 review.

But it’s another kind of pipeline that’s on the minds of many Cornwall residents. The proposal to push a natural gas pipeline through Cornwall and many other Addison County towns could impinge on the property of many residents.

There’s a potential benefit to the plan, because the natural gas would be burned at the International Paper plant across the lake in Ticonderoga, N.Y. – and burning natural gas is much cleaner than using coal or fuel oil (or the tires that IP proposed to burn a few years back).

But it’s clear, from Vermont Gas Systems’ dealing with Hinesburg residents, that the company has something to learn when it comes to responding to citizens’ concerns. As several people pointed out Monday evening, speaking out early and often is the public’s best chance of averting potential safety risks and avoiding eminent domain proceedings along the pipeline’s eventual route.

As the pipeline issues come to a boil, I’ll remember this year’s town meeting because of an exchange about the local Little League program.

Jon Isham stood to ask how things went with Little League last season, and coordinator Peter Conlon responded with words that nicely summed up town meeting itself:

“Everybody had a good time, and learned a lot.”

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