Letters to the Editor

Letter to the Editor: Does Town Meeting Democratically Reflect Burlington’s Population?

October 3, 2023
The following is a letter to the editor and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of BNEWS.
When Town Meeting defeated Articles 9 and 11-13 on September 27th, several groups of Burlington voters may have unintentionally been excluded from running for office as Town Meeting Members (TMM). The shared thread of these Articles was to allow attending these meetings by remote electronic access not only for the TMMs but for members of the public at large.
When the Town Meeting form of government was approved by voters in 1971, it was appropriate to require elected TMMs to attend meetings in person, as there was no other option. But times have changed. If the Covid lockdown has taught us anything, it is that the world can and does continue to function when in-person attendance is not feasible. There are compelling reasons to fully utilize the recently enhanced capabilities of online access, even beyond the Covid era.
For those who believe in fully inclusive participation in local government, the recent meeting was a sad event to behold. There was a lengthy discussion of the above-mentioned Articles, articles that had been carefully deliberated and drawn up by the Bylaws Committee. They provided for remote access, as defined in Article 9:
“… ability for an authorized person to access public meetings or any and all sessions of Town Meeting via a computer or network from a geographical distance through a network connection…”
Town Meeting represents the core of democratic participation here in Burlington, so, remote access is important not only for TMMs but for the public at large.
Who Is Excluded
Because these Articles were defeated, the following classes of residents have in effect been excluded from our participatory democratic process, due to their inability to attend in person, at least at times:
  • Parents of young children (our future leaders) who may be unable to obtain child-care for the long duration of those meetings;
  • Seniors with physical limitations, including being immune-compromised, which prevents attendance at indoor gatherings, or inability to drive;
  • Disabled voters of any age;
  • Caregivers for any age person;
  • Persons who are ill and don’t want to share their illness with others;
  • People traveling for work who are barred from attending remotely.
These groups represent a significant portion of Burlington’s population, and they must not be excluded. Until now, remote participation has been allowed only for those TMMs who have filed an application for exemption under ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) regulations. However, and importantly, the Town’s currently chosen platform has a technical limitation: those elected officials who participate remotely are blocked from using their own voice to make comments during a meeting. Instead, they must submit their comments only by typing in the chat box. At this stage of our technology, there is no reason not to provide them with audio capability.
What made the discussion about the Articles sad to behold was the spoken words of some TMMs who opposed remote access. Several of them emphatically uttered words to the effect that because they themselves have made the effort to attend in person, so should everyone else. Indeed, not one of those opposing the Articles acknowledged that other people may have constraints barring physical attendance. Nor did they express any empathy for these people. Their argument reflects an inability to put themselves in the place of others whose life situations may not be exactly like their own.
Unfortunately, this “Us and them” mentality seems to be pervasive and is at the core of so much political
confrontation, not only locally, but nationally and internationally.
In addition, the discussion by those who opposed the Articles reflected a lack of understanding of the technology involved in video calls. With today’s video platforms (asin Zoom or Skype), combined audio and video participation by remote attendees is as powerful as that of those present in the auditorium, including social interaction, as evidenced by many large meetings carried out on Zoom.
While listening to the opposition was difficult, at the same time, it was very moving to hear the passionate arguments in favor of inclusivity and allowing for remote access due to extenuating circumstances.
Since attendance in the Town Meeting is open to any Burlington resident, online access to the auditorium meeting should also be afforded to residents in their homes or traveling – not only to elected TMMs provided they sign up in advance to give the webmaster an idea of how many will attend remotely.
Democracy is under attack from so many forces these days. Its presence at the local level is perhaps where it counts the most. An informed and well-represented citizenry can make better voting decisions, and it does include those who are homebound for various reasons.
R. Rin
Long-time Burlington resident

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