After members of the Cambridge Selectboard decided to hold their annual meeting in person, they also took the rare step of granting a reasonable accommodation request from a resident who invoked the Americans with Disabilities Act, allowing them to attend the meeting in person but separate from the crowd.
In the wake of the widespread return of in-person town meetings across the state, the Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights worked to support the efforts of people asking for reasonable accommodations under Title II of the act, which enforces anti-discriminatory measures for disabled people in local government.
In February, a Cambridge resident, whose name was withheld by the advocacy group, made a reasonable accommodation request under the disabilities act. In the request, the resident made two recommendations: change the town meeting from in-person to all Australian ballot voting or postpone the meeting until it could be held outdoors.
Selectboard chair Cody Marsh responded with a March 6 letter sent after an emergency selectboard meeting where the matter was discussed in a non-public executive session.
In his response, Marsh pointed out that the Australian ballot vote would require the town to delay its annual meeting and argued that holding the meeting outdoors on grassy, uneven surface would not allow voters with mobility issues to attend.
Marsh offered a third option and told the disabled resident that the town would provide a setup that allowed them to remotely attend and participate in the day’s proceedings while remaining physically distanced.
Instead of joining the town majority in the Cambridge Elementary School gym, the resident was provided their own classroom complete with a video setup for remote viewing and a masked runner to facilitate their participation and convey paper ballots.
In a meeting format where so much is decided by voice, the town also provided a proxy for the disabled resident who ensured their voice was heard.
Cambridge may be one of the only Vermont town that provided such an accommodation at their annual meeting this year, according to Disability Rights Vermont Executive director Lindsey Owen. According to VTDigger, 70 percent of the state’s 247 towns held in-person town meetings this year.
Despite prompting from Owen, Marsh and the selectboard declined to take it a step further and alert other residents who may qualify for a disability accommodation and told her that each individual would have to make their own request.
Only board member Courtney Leitz opposed the 4-1 decision to hold the town meeting in person despite legislation that renewed the pandemic-era law allowing municipalities to hold annual votes by Australian ballot. Other members justified their decision by pointing to the late hour at which Gov. Phil Scott signed the law, which almost guaranteed that the town meeting date would have to be moved if it was to switch the Australian ballot format.
Owen claimed that regardless of the legislation’s timing, local governments have a legal requirement to accommodate people with disabilities.
“The obligation for towns and cities to accommodate people with disabilities and the electoral process is not a new thing, it’s something that should have been happening all along,” Owen said. “What we saw from COVID was, we made this accommodation shift for everybody, not just for people with disabilities. so that people could be safe and could still participate in the voting process.
“I think the timing of this new law, it’s well intentioned, and towns are thinking that it’s creating all this hardship, but really what the Cambridge decision showed us is that there are other ways to accommodate people with disabilities who cannot be there in person in a closed space in a group setting.”
It’s unclear, as Cambridge only granted one individual disability accommodation request, whether the town would attempt to place multiple people in the same room or grant them individual rooms within the school with individual facilitators in place, but Owen speculated that the format could be malleable depending on the number of requests and the space available.
As town meeting attendants crowded into the gym Tuesday morning, and only a smattering of them masked, Marsh acknowledged that the disability request raised questions about the legally required accommodations towns may need to make in the protracted pandemic age.
“I think it definitely warrants a discussion, regardless of the ADA piece or not, but certainly I think there’s a further discussion that needs to be had at future town meetings and how we implement them,” Marsh said. “My opinion is, I don’t feel that it should be up to five selectboard members to dictate how the town should be voting. I think that the power should be with the people.”
With one creative response to a reasonable accommodation request, however, Cambridge may have a set a precedent for how disabled people are accommodated at town meetings in pandemic-era Vermont.
“I think if there’s one tiny, tiny silver lining to COVID, it was that it showed us there are ways to enable people to be a part of their communities, and we need to carry that forward, even if some of us feel like the pandemic is subsiding,” Owen said.
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