Town Reports: Telling the Community’s Story Year by Year

-Prudence Doherty, Archives Month Committee Member

One Vermont tradition that exemplifies our Archives Month theme, “Voice and Vote,” is the annual town meeting, when community members come together to share opinions, make decisions and vote on local issues. The annual town report is an essential reference tool for town meeting. After the meeting, it provides a record of one year in the civic life of the community. Because Vermont’s nine cities also produce similar annual reports, here we will refer to municipal reports. 

Towns and cities are required to give voters an annual report on their financial condition, indicating expenses, income and indebtedness. Auditors, who may be volunteers or professionals, are responsible for gathering and certifying that information. The municipality presents the financial data in the annual report. The report typically includes a great deal of additional information, including reports from elected officials, community related entities and social service organizations that receive funds from the community; the proposed budget for the next fiscal year; the warning for the annual meeting or election indicating what will be voted on; and  records of births, death and marriages. Reports might also include special sections honoring community members or reporting on an important issue or event that year.  

The back cover of the 1912 Barnet, Vermont report includes a list of the questions voters considered. Number 6, “Shall license be granted for the sale of intoxicating liquors in this town?” undoubtedly prompted a spirited discussion.  

Political scientist Andrew Nuquist described some late 19th- and early 20th-century reports as “long pages of dreary listings of the town orders [bills paid], arranged chronologically month by month,” without totals or explanation. In 1933, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce announced a competition designed to make the annual reports more useful to voters. The Chamber pushed for reports “interesting enough for women to read and clear enough for children to understand…through the use of graphs, charts and simple comparative statistics,” according to the Brandon Union. The competition, supported by UVM Extension, continued for many years, with the ultimate goal of providing citizens with information they needed to act responsibly at town meetings and polling places. 

A section from the Overseer of the Poor’s 9-page report in the 1933 Barnet report. The details—who received what kind of help and at what cost—provide a snapshot of how the town cared for the increased number of townspeople who struggled during the early years of the Depression. 

Information collected in annual reports helps tell the story of communities year by year over many decades. The reports from officials and departments document the evolution of municipal services to meet changing needs. They chronicle how Vermont towns and cities have responded to challenges such as natural disasters, environmental degradation, economic recessions, world wars, and public health threats.  Above all, the reports are about the people of the community, from the officials who volunteered for the common good, to those who worked on road crews, took refuge at poor farms, turned out to vote, visited the library, or listened to a summer concert. 

The town reports competition encouraged municipalities to add attractive covers, a practice which continues. The aerial photos on the 2015 Barnet report provide dramatic evidence of the first step the town took to solve the problem of backflow into Harvey’s Lake, a major recreational resource. 

Officials once mailed reports to all residents, but later restricted the distribution to voters. Now, as more towns and cities post reports online, print copies might only be available in the municipal offices. Older print reports may be available in municipal offices and local libraries. For historical research, the Silver Special Collections Library at the University of Vermont, the Middlebury College Library and the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration (VSARA) have extensive collections of print town reports. Town and city websites and VSARA provide access to the more recent digital reports. 

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