Towns across Vermont are beginning to decide how they want to hold Town Meeting Day 2021 as the final month of this year steams along toward its conclusion.
Lamoille County’s largest towns, Morristown and Stowe, have already decided to conduct all Town Meeting Day business by ballot this March.
Other Lamoille County towns are leaning that way, but most are holding off a bit longer before making a final decision, just to see what other options might materialize. Those towns have mostly begrudgingly accepted their annual meetings won’t be in-person affairs on March 2, but are looking to the Legislature to change the rules allowing them to decide how best to conduct their towns’ business next year.
Gov. Phil Scott, at his twice-weekly press conference Friday, said the state just came off a general election that saw the highest voter turnout in history, and the mail-in ballot system “seemed to work fairly well.” He said his administration is “at the table” with the Legislature to get something passed before the end of January, which is traditionally when towns need to have their budgets and annual meeting agenda items finalized.
“We’re in a tougher position today than we were before the November election,” Scott said. “(We’re) trying to do what we can to protect the process, as well as protect our constituents.”
In Belvidere, town clerk Cathy Mander-Adams said the preferred solution would be to push town meeting back a month or two, if that meant the community could get together, perhaps outside, when the weather is marginally less wintry.
“They are very democratically inclined to hold town meeting in person,” she said of the selectboard.
Mander-Adams said the concern isn’t so much about the loss of a tradition, since expectations are this will be a one-off anomaly. The big question is how to equitably and safely hold the information session ahead of the annual meeting, especially if it has to be held remotely.
“People don’t have good, reliable internet. Some people don’t have internet at all,” she said.
Belvidere held its first remote selectboard meeting on Dec. 2, after resisting the idea for the first eight months of the pandemic. She said she had to remind board members to expect more people to attend the meetings if they are held over Zoom. Indeed, a couple of people who rarely attend meetings were there, but only as observers.
“I’m sure we’ll see more activity in the meetings going down the road,” she said.
Cambridge town clerk Mark Schilling said the selectboard’s consensus is to hold town meeting on the normal day, but by Australian ballot. But the details still need to be hammered out.
For instance, the idea was floated to have an online town meeting, which would serve as a way to have a series of presentations on agenda items such as the budget. Schilling said the town is “being very careful with the budget” and is further along in the budgeting process than usual.
“I would say the selectboard is going with a level-funded budget, at the very least,” he said.
The most prominent change for Schilling will be the process of mailing out ballots. The general election may have provided a practice run for election officials, but that was a statewide initiative from the secretary of state’s office on down. Town meeting, on the other hand, could differ from town to town.
Stowe, for instance, authorized its town clerk to send out Australian ballots to all its voters. Other towns may mail them out only as they’re requested. There will likely have to be two ballots — one for town matters and the elementary school budget, and another for the Lamoille Union Middle/High School budget.
Schilling said the idea of going to Australian ballot for town meeting has come up before, explored by an advisory committee that came up resolutely opposed to the idea.
“I get the distinct sense that everyone wants an assurance” that this would be a one-time exception to the traditional town meeting in Cambridge, he said.
Eden’s selectboard hasn’t made a decision yet, and Town Clerk Candy Vear doesn’t expect one for a few more weeks.
A decision to hold town meeting via all-ballot voting would be a major change of pace in Eden, Vear said. For years, everything but the school budget has been voted from the floor, including all elections.
Still, “they’ve got to make a decision soon,” she said.
The board had a budget meeting scheduled earlier this week, on Monday, Dec. 14, but no action item regarding how to hold Town Meeting Day was on that agenda.
The board’s next regular meeting is slated for Dec. 29, Vear said, so the matter could come up for a decision then.
Elmore town clerk Sharon Draper said the town selectboard is resigned to the fact that town meeting will be a ballot box affair next March. Other than that, details are murky, as everyone waits to see how the Legislature moves forward.
Elmore rarely votes for any municipal affairs via Australian ballot, unless it’s a specific one-time item — a measure approving a new town fire truck was done by ballot last year, as was a move to enact a local option tax on short term rentals.
“It’s going to be totally new to us here,” Draper said.
How to hold Town Meeting Day will be a subject up for discussion, and possibly decision, at the Dec. 21 meeting of the Hyde Park Selectboard.
“They talked about it a little bit in November,” Town Administrator Ron Rodjenski said, but the board decided then to do some more digging on the matter before making a decision.
The all-ballot vote option seems to be the simplest, he added.
The option of delaying the date of town meeting is another, but no one will know if and how that’s a possibility until after the Legislature reconvenes next month.
“They’re keeping an open mind at this point,” Rodjenski said.
The board has been in talks with Lamoille Union High School about safety upgrades it has made, like better ventilation and air circulation systems, that might allow for a safer town meeting.
Rodjenski said he believes the board will make a final decision at one of its next few meetings; after the Dec. 21 meeting, there are only two more regularly scheduled meetings before the town meeting day warning must be finalized.
The Johnson Selectboard discussed the upcoming town meeting at its Dec. 7 meeting, but no decision had been made. The most likely option, according to town administrator Brian Story, is all-ballot voting.
“They are saying there will be more options coming, and we are interested in what those might be,” Story said. “The board wants to preserve community involvement.”
He doesn’t think the board will wait much longer, but any option to preserve more of that community involvement would be welcome.
“They’re well aware they need to make a decision soon,” Story said. The Johnson Selectboard next meets on Monday, Dec. 21.
“We were getting ready to call it, we had planned on making a decision already, and then I got the news that the Legislature was looking at other options,” Story said.
Town Clerk Nancy LaRose said on Tuesday that no decision regarding town meeting had yet been made.
Wolcott also hasn’t made a final decision yet, but the issue was on the agenda for the selectboard’s meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 16.
Assistant town clerk Allison Bigelow said the board already decided to waive the requirement that any organization asking for a town appropriation collect voter signatures on a petition, a decision that has led to an uptick in the number of requests.