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Brattleboro indefinitely postpones annual meeting

Amid the coronavirus lockdown, the town still needs a way to safely hold its annual representative town meeting

BRATTLEBORO—The Selectboard has confirmed that Annual Representative Town Meeting (ARTM) is postponed indefinitely.

As the board watches the COVID-19 restrictions unfold and tries to find a way to hold ARTM — ideally before the new fiscal year begins July 1 — Town Manager Peter Elwell cautioned the town to keep a slow and steady approach.

Traditionally, 140 Town Meeting members gather on the floor on the third Saturday in March, along with the board, town and school system staff, other members of the public, and the press.

Scott’s ban on gatherings scuttled that tradition.

Recent state legislation has relaxed open meeting requirements because of the coronavirus pandemic, allowing municipalities to satisfy public access by scheduling meetings by videoconference.

But Elwell said town staff have yet to identify an electronic meeting format that can accommodate a town meeting that includes a group of more than 140 people discussing, voting on, and amending warning articles.

An electronic meeting will be the “last resort,” he said. The ideal solution will be an in-person meeting.

In response to some audience suggestions, Elwell said the town should follow the processes that align with state statute and the Town Charter, he said.

These normal processes are “what protects people’s rights,” he said, noting that deviating from codified rules around ARTM could create the unintended consequence of empowering some constituents while disempowering others.

The Board then voted to postpone the meeting which had originally been rescheduled to May 9, the latest date the town could have held the meeting and still adhere to legal deadlines for such requirements as publishing the meeting warning and filing petitions before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

“May 9 was a day of significance, but it’s not practical,” Elwell said.

In the meantime, while the town tries to find a time to hold the annual meeting, staff continue to take proactive measures, such as contacting operators of venues that are large enough to accommodate the meeting in a manner consistent with medical guidelines on social distancing.

The town is also considering an outdoor meeting.

“We don’t want to try to solve this faster than we need to,” Elwell said. “[Rushing] could harm the democratic process.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #557 (Wednesday, April 15, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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