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Vermonters speak

Politics turns global as towns debate Iraq, impeachment

ROXBURY, Vt. -- In a white clapboard building surrounded by snowbanks as high as 12 feet, residents at the annual Town Meeting debated yesterday how to handle beaver problems, library expansion, and a troubling rise in the price of gravel.

And then a hush descended on the room. Moderator Lucinda Sullivan asked for civility.

It was a moment of utmost seriousness for this tiny central Vermont town, 536 miles north of the White House: Now they would discuss motions calling for the return of US troops from Iraq and asking the US House of Representatives to investigate whether to impeach President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

"A lot of people say it does not matter what the tiny town of Roxbury thinks," Boo Smith, a resident, said from a back row. "But I think the powerful message is our little town of Roxbury does have a voice."

Other Vermonters felt the same. The Associated Press reported that 29 towns have approved calls for impeachment investigations, and four towns tabled the motion, according to organizers of the movement.

Additionally, ten towns passed nonbinding resolutions calling for US troops to return home, the organizers said.

Vermont has a long tradition of using Town Meeting to address far-afield issues, dating to the Civil War era, when several towns voted to abolish slavery.

"That's what Town Meeting is for," said Claire Chomentowski, who gathered enough signatures in Roxbury to put the impeachment and troops motions before residents. "This is the best place to do this."

Roxbury, a town of 576 people believed to be named after Roxbury, Mass., voted 42-13 for the impeachment investigation against Bush and Cheney and 37-21 to call for the troops' return.

But the votes seemed almost anticlimactic. The drama came from the voices of neighbors, many of whom spoke with great emotion.

After Sullivan, the moderator, read the impeachment resolution, which charged that Bush and Cheney "deliberately or recklessly misled our nation" to go to war in Iraq and "condoned the use of torture," Vietnam veteran Chuck Slocum rose wearily from his fold-up chair.

"It's painful even to hear that article being read," Slocum said. "I see no evidence of torture. I think this thing is disgraceful."

Near the front of the room, which usually serves as space for the town's 64 elementary-school students, John Aberth, a town resident and visiting professor of medieval history at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., stood and faced Slocum.

"On evidence of torture, I have two words for you: Manadel al-Jamadi," Aberth said, referring to a prisoner who died in 2003 at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq after being interrogated by the CIA. "He was tortured . . . until he bled from his nose, mouth, and ears."

In the debate on the resolution calling for the troops to be brought home, it seemed as if emotions had been bottled up for months. Residents raised hands high, asking to speak. Fifteen did, some twice.

"I hate to be divisive," said Chomentowski, who has long kept track of the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq on a chalkboard hung on the front of her house. The number stood at 3,175 yesterday.

"I want to send a message to our troops: 'Thank you for your service. You've accomplished what you were sent over to do, and we want you to come back now,' " she told the gathering.

Tammy Legacy, 44, assistant town clerk, said she wept many nights over the last year because her son, James, 27, an Army helicopter mechanic, was stationed in Afghanistan. He is back in Vermont now, and Legacy said she believed the resolution was the wrong message for the troops.

"I don't want to hurt those who have [served] and their families," she said.

The final votes appeared to bruise some feelings, but the moderator kept the discussion moving to other issues. They had much to talk about during the day: the seasonal flooding caused by beavers and sedimentation in the north end of town; the need to put a bathroom in the library; and the retirement, effective yesterday, of Town Clerk Gloria Gerdes.

But this Town Meeting will be remembered for the talk of the nation, not of the town.

John Donnelly can be reached at donnelly@globe.com.

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