VERNON—On Wednesday, March 2, when most Vermonters are recovering from Tuesday’s Town Meeting Day, the attendance of Vernon residents is expected in the elementary school cafeteria for another evening of direct democracy in action.
Typically, Vernon holds its town meeting over the course of two nights: Monday and Tuesday. But, because this year’s proceedings would demand an impossible change to the laws of physics — a person cannot be in two places at one time — the Selectboard made a much easier adjustment: move the second night of the meeting to Wednesday.
‘A bit of a pickle’
Tim Arsenault — known to most of Windham County residents as WTSA’s Tim Johnson — appeared before the Selectboard at its Jan. 18 meeting to request this change.
Arsenault is Vernon’s town moderator. He presides over Town Meeting.
And, as in many other small towns with declining public participation, Arsenault wears another hat. He is also the Chair of the Board of Civil Authority. He oversees elections.
“I’m in a bit of a pickle” because of this dual role, Arsenault told the board.
“This is a unique request, but because [it’s] a Presidential election year, I think it would make sense to make that move” and hold the second night of town meeting on Wednesday, he said.
Arsenault also noted the impossibility of having poll workers assist in the elections and attend town meeting if both events were to remain on Tuesday.
Although the board ultimately agreed with Arsenault and unanimously approved the motion reflecting his request, there was some discussion on the pros and cons.
Some board members questioned whether this change would hinder or enhance participation. Selectboard Clerk Emily Vergobbe expressed concern that it would interrupt the momentum. Josh Unruh thought having a “day of reprieve” in between would help residents recharge their batteries.
Board member Jeff Dunklee asked whether the Selectboard had the authority to move the second night of town meeting.
Arsenault assured Dunklee that state statute says as long as the meeting is properly warned, the Selectboard can make this change.
According to the “Local Elections” chapter of the Vermont Statutes, a town may vote to begin town meeting “on any of the three days immediately preceding the first Tuesday in March” and the meeting “may be adjourned to another date.” [Title 17, Chapter 055, Subchapter 002, sect; 2640]
Thus, as long as the town provides 30 days’ warning, town meeting can, in fact, start on Monday, skip Tuesday, and resume on Wednesday.
Is this legal?
If Arsenault achieves his goal with this year’s election, he will experience a wardrobe change: trading in the hat he wears as town moderator for that of town clerk.
The race is contested, though, with Arsenault running against Assistant Town Clerk and former Auditor Nancy L. Gassett, and Recreation Board member Melissa R. Ferris.
On March 1, Arsenault, chair of the Board of Civil Authority, will preside over an election for which he is a candidate.
One might ask, why is the town clerk not presiding over elections? Vernon’s current town clerk, Susan Miller, is on leave. Aina Lindquist, acting town clerk, is not a resident of Vernon; thus, she cannot serve as an official at the town’s elections.
That leaves Arsenault.
And, that raises the question, Is it legal for him to run this election?
According to the “Disqualifications” section of the Vermont elections statutes, a person may serve as an official in an election run by Australian ballot if “the office for which he or she is a candidate is that of moderator, justice of the peace, town clerk, treasurer, ward clerk, or inspector of elections."
So, in a word, yes.