In 29 towns across Vermont, residents collected signatures for renewable-energy resolutions for Town Meeting Day in March. To be considered for Town Meeting Day, a resolution needs the signatures of 5 percent of the town’s registered voters — a number anywhere from 20 to 2,113. 350Vermont created a template resolution and encouraged local groups to tailor the resolution to the circumstances of their town. The template resolution spells out the threat of climate change and calls on the State of Vermont to make a real commitment to its stated goal of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050. A second, optional, section addresses measures at the local level.
Organizers have been going door to door, tabling at their local co-ops, and advocating for the resolutions at the selectboard, all to get the state to commit to its goals of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050. Marisa Keller, a member of 350 Brattleboro, spoke with some of these organizers.
Dorset: “I thought it would be easy”
“I thought it would be easy,” Letitia Scordino said. She needed 100 signatures for her resolution in Dorset. She figured she’d make an announcement at her church and find people at the post office and town gathering places. But she encountered one stumbling block after another. The church, citing the law of separation of church and state, did not permit her to gather signatures there. The day she went to the post office few people showed up. And a local store owner read over her resolution and told her to leave.
She also learned that there was an existing town energy committee, which felt snubbed that she was undertaking this independent initiative. Committee members felt that the wording of the resolution was too vague and not practical.
“I was confronted with the Yankee temperament,” Letitia said. “People felt [the resolution] was an emotional reaction to the issue … [They] think these 350.org people are all emotional,” and that they aren’t presenting practical solutions.
“I come from the arts,” Letitia said. “There has to be emotion — that’s what makes revolution!”
Letitia changed some of the wording of the resolution, but it took several more conversations before energy committee members consented to sign. Meanwhile, though, Letitia was finding some other willing signers, and she’s proud to say that she reached her goal.
“I got a wide array of people — some conservatives, some liberals,” she said. Many of them she knew, but she also made new connections.
Now that her signatures have been approved by the Dorset town clerk, Letitia’s next step is to prepare to present the issue at town meeting. In Dorset, the residents gather at town meeting to discuss the issues facing the town, and then vote on the issues the following day by Australian ballot.
“I have to learn more,” Letitia said. “I’m not a scientist.” She knows that she may face challenges from many residents, but she plans to be prepared. She hopes that the members of Earth Matters, the 350VT node based in nearby Manchester, will be able to support each other at their respective town meetings.
Bristol: “It feels good to be doing something”
In the town of Bristol, the selectboard is in negotiations with Vermont Gas Systems to bring gas distribution lines to the town, and many residents are excited for it.
“I hesitated to get involved with writing a resolution because of the selectboard’s strong intention and the excitement some residents have about it,” resident Sally Burrell wrote in an email. “I felt better about going forward with it when a couple friends wanted to do it and when I realized the resolution is directed toward the state.” She hoped that a state-focused resolution would be less contentious in Bristol but also raise people’s awareness about the local issue at hand.
“I’ve gotten so frustrated with some of the conservativeness and the pipeline stuff … and the fact that more people don’t see the benefits of using renewables,” she said. “They’re pushing a pipeline in, calling it clean, calling it cheap. To me it feels like a wealthy company rolling over us, but a lot of people are going along with it.”
But, with the resolution, she said, “It feels good to be doing something. It seems better to focus on developing things that seem positive to me, instead of trying to talk people out of things.”
Sally said that she sought out people and places that are likely to be receptive to the message of the resolution, and she had an enthusiastic response.
“A lot of people know me, so they trust me,” she said, and they support her campaign even before they know much about it.
Sally and her co-campaigners needed 142 signatures, and they got 168. But it turned out that the resolution is still not guaranteed a place on Town Meeting Day. Sally forwarded notes from the town administrator that acknowledge the qualifying signatures but include a quote from a staff attorney at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns:
“The petition is not one to which the selectboard is legally required to respond … because the petition does not deal with a matter over which the town voters have been given authority in statute … The selectboard may choose how to respond to that petition, including refusing to place it on the town warning … the selectboard may also alter the wording of the petition…”
“It’s a bit disheartening,” Sally wrote. She and one of her co-campaigners will meet with the selectboard soon to discuss the issue.
But Sally said the signature-collecting process was a positive experience. “I was surprised,” she said. “I actually loved connecting with people and talking to people.”
Brattleboro: “The future is here! It’s 2018!”
Brattleboro signature collectors encountered little pushback, just a long road. After a month of tabling at the co-op and farmers’ market and tracking down friends and neighbors with pen and petition in hand, a small group spearheaded by local 350 leaders collected their 450th signature a couple of days before the January 18 deadline. “I have never been involved with collecting signatures for a petition before,” 350 Brattleboro member Kit Whallon wrote. “What surprised me most is how time consuming it is. … I wish I could think of a more effective way to get the word out to larger numbers of people!”
Daniel Quipp is one of the leaders of 350 Brattleboro. “I was initially skeptical about the value of a campaign to pass an advisory resolution,” he wrote. “However, I was encouraged by the success of last year’s grassroots campaign for a plastic bag ban.” That advisory article received overwhelming support from voters and is now a local ordinance.
Daniel hopes that the renewable energy resolution will be “reflected in future budgets, purchases and development.” But even at this point the campaign has had positive results. As Daniel wrote, “We have raised the profile of 350VT and 350 Brattleboro, inspired people to get involved with our organization, and reminded folks that their friends and neighbors are working in the community for climate justice and would be more than happy to have them join in.”
“It would be so cool to see solar panels on our schools and public buildings, to bike safely through town, and to have town buses run cleanly on renewable power,” wrote Kit from Brattleboro. “To me, it’s what the future should look like, and the future is here! It’s 2018!”
Written by Marisa Keller
Overall, there has been enthusiastic support for the resolution campaign. Some towns, like Huntington and Monkton, started their signature collecting efforts only a few days before the deadline and were able to fill their sheets quickly with the names of supporters. Twenty-eight towns collected petitions in support of the resolution. An additional ten towns were able to get the resolution added to the town warning by taking it directly to the selectboard or city council. In all, 38 towns will have resolutions on their town warnings.
The next phase of this campaign is to prepare supporters to speak at their Town Meetings. Working with local groups, 350VT is organizing public speaking trainings around the state. The first is scheduled for February 10 in Manchester. If you are interested, please sign up here.
This (Re)Solution campaign is part of 350VT’s broader (Re)Generate New Solutions Campaign. The purpose of the (Re)Solutions campaign is to demonstrate the demand for local solutions and be a first step in a multi-year campaign. The State of Vermont has a stated goal to power Vermont by 90 percent renewables by 2050, but we are far from meeting this goal. We need to do more at every level of government to decarbonize the atmosphere and build momentum towards alternatives to fossil fuels. That’s what 350VT’s Town Meeting Day (Re)Solutions are all about!