BRATTLEBORO—After much confusion and conflicting information from town officials, organizers working for youth suffrage learned they must postpone their plans.
Selectboard members and town officials have apologized to 16-year-old Rio Daims, the youth-vote coordinator for Brattleboro Common Sense, who is seeking to amend the town charter to allow 16- and 17-year-old residents to vote on local issues and serve on the High School and Town School boards and in Representative Town Meeting. Currently, only residents 18 and older can participate.
Although Daims pushed for getting the question on the November ballot, because of statute governing public hearings, charter changes, and ballot warnings, voters can’t weigh in until March’s annual town elections.
The Selectboard held a special meeting on the morning of Aug. 24 to address the petition submitted by Daims after she appeared at the regular board meeting on Aug. 21 to talk about the issue and to express her frustration with the process and with public officials.
She told the Board she had gotten conflicting information from town staff on the deadlines for getting the item on the ballot, on meeting warnings, and on agendas.
“We had the deadline changed three times in [about] an hour,” Daims said, “only to be told we could not get it on the ballot in November[...]. It was a big surprise to us to have all these deadlines changed in a short amount of time.”
Daims asked the Board “not to pass judgment” on the merits of youth suffrage, “but to just put it on the ballot” so voters can decide.
A consolation prize
Selectboard Chair Kate O’Connor gave Daims more bad news: because the youth suffrage item was not on the Aug. 21 meeting’s warning, the Board could neither discuss it nor make a decision on it.
O’Connor offered a consolation prize: The Board would call the special meeting on Aug. 24 to address the subject and to begin the process for including the question on the ballot for town-wide voting on March 5.
Town Manager Peter B. Elwell apologized to Daims for the “confusing communication” and explained that “the timing was so tight,” and he was trying to figure out how he could help Daims get the item on the ballot.
Selectboard members Shanta Gander and Brandie Starr also apologized to Daims.
At the Aug. 24 special meeting, O’Connor assured Daims “you’ve done everything right” by getting the correct number of signatures on the petition, but in the time since the Tuesday meeting, “we’ve found out there’s no possibility” of getting the question on the November ballot.
O’Connor explained that with a change to the Town Charter, the Board has to call two public hearings before the elections, “and the glitch is early voting,” which, for the November elections, begins on Sept. 21. Additionally, after a town-wide vote, the state Legislature has to approve any changes to a town’s charter.
By agreeing to put the youth suffrage question on the March ballot, and by scheduling the public hearings in the fall, “we won’t have any more ups and downs,” O’Connor said.
Daims and Fisher briefly sparred on the procedure for changing the Town Charter, and each cited different sections of statute that address how the Selectboard is to call a meeting and whether it has to happen during a Special Town Meeting or during Annual Representative Town Meeting.
Seeking clear guidelines
Gander asked her colleagues to use this incident as an opportunity to craft clear guidelines on how to petition for amendments to the Town Charter.
“I know how it feels to be on the other end of getting, like, eight different answers to something that should be a clear pathway,” Gander said, and clarity is crucial “especially if people are [trying] to participate in the democratic process.”
Selectboard member David Schoales agreed, and asked Town Clerk Hilary Francis and Town Attorney Robert Fisher to create a checklist for changing the charter “so this doesn’t happen again.”
Elwell also agreed, and urged residents seeking charter changes to “engage early” with the town attorney, because there may be aspects that require more research or assistance even beyond an instructional checklist or outline.
O’Connor asked Daims if there was a particular significance of getting the youth suffrage question on the November ballot.
“We’ve been getting a lot of support for it in the past few months,” Daims said, and her group wants to put the question before voters on the ballot for the November elections to take advantage of the momentum.
Additionally, Daims said she “heard it takes a long time to get [things] on the legislative agenda,” and by March, “there’s only two months left in the session, so this may not happen until 2020.”
The Selectboard approved two hearings on the matter — the first during the Oct. 2 regular Board meeting and the second on Oct. 9, which will require a special Board meeting. O’Connor noted those meetings will be warned on Aug. 31.
Elwell added, “then it will be included and warned in January for the Town Meeting elections on March 5.”
Elwell and every Selectboard member apologized to Daims, and many said this process was an important learning experience. Starr encouraged Daims and anyone else considering a petition or charter change to “come to us,” saying, “we’re here for you.”
Disappointed with the process
Mark Tully, who consults with Brattleboro Common Sense, expressed his disappointment with the process.
“I’m glad this has been an educational experience for you, but it’s unfortunate this issue has been derailed,” he told the board.
Tully said Fisher “keeps contradicting himself,” and that “there are contradictory statutes.” He continued, “I don’t consider this a comprehensive legal analysis for this reason, and given a few more days, we may find other interpretations.”
In his response, Fisher said he is “only pointing out the two mechanisms” — a petition or a Selectboard action — for calling a public meeting to vote on the question. Fisher said, like Elwell, that some of the confusion was a result of town staff’s rush to figure out how to “make this work,” and “we were buoyed by expectations that it would.”
Fisher said “we’re happy to” review petitions and help petitioners, and the earlier the better.
O’Connor thanked Daims, and told her, “we’ll get this right.”
“I’m definitely disappointed by the confusion inflicted by the town on this process,” Daims told The Commons.
“There’s been a lot of miscommunication, and they didn’t convey the right deadlines. They flip-flopped four or five times,” she said.
“I don’t think it was intentional,” she said, “but it’s unfortunate because they didn’t know the deadlines and it’s their job to know, and to tell people.”
Daims told The Commons she was committed to getting the youth suffrage question onto the ballot, despite the setback, and “I encourage people to come out and vote, and to come to the public hearings.”
“It’s not the most terrible outcome, getting it on the March ballot,” Daims said.