BRATTLEBORO—Despite some caveats and details still to be ironed out, Town Meeting members will meet virtually on Sept. 12 for Annual Representative Town Meeting in a process that a committee says will fundamentally preserve the democratic elements of the traditional in-person deliberations.
COVID-19 derailed the meeting’s original March 21 date. Since then, town staff and Selectboard have struggled to find a meeting structure that balanced the need to protect meeting members’ health with the need to protect Representative Town Meeting’s democratic process.
At its July 28 meeting, the board sanctioned a completely online meeting using the videoconferencing platform Zoom. The board will likely vote on the official meeting warning next week.
In what Town Manager Peter Elwell described as a “continued evolutionary process,” a committee charged with analyzing the options for the meeting recommended use of Zoom to the board “with some trepidation, but believing that it can be accomplished if you are tolerant of the risks involved,” Elwell said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Selectboard meetings have convened on GoToMeeting.
The staff recommended Zoom because the platform has additional features. For example, participants can click “raise hand” to join a speakers’ queue as well as use a yes/no voting feature that also tallies the votes.
These features better support a meeting where up to 140 people — the maximum number of Town Meeting members allowed by town charter — will be voting, Elwell said.
He stressed that using Zoom comes with risks and inconveniences. Individual meeting members might encounter technology issues, such as slow internet, he noted.
“You need to be satisfied as a group that those risks are tolerable,” he told the Selectboard.
Stay home, stay safe
Over the past few months, a group of six people have explored the risks and benefits of different meeting structures such as completely online or a mix of in-person and online.
The group also explored different voting styles allowed under state statute, such as having meeting members cast Australian ballots after an online informational meeting.
The core group of six are Town Executive Secretary Jan Anderson, Town Moderator Lawrin Crispe, Town Manager Peter Elwell, Town Attorney Robert Fisher, Town Clerk Hilary Francis, and Assistant Town Manger Patrick Moreland.
Over the course of an hour, board members debated the need for a one-day or a two-day meeting. They also discussed the technology needs of meeting members.
Finally, they directed Elwell to move forward with the all-online Zoom format and to hold Annual Representative Town Meeting (ARTM) on Sept. 12, with an “as needed” second day on Sept. 13.
Elwell told the board that the work behind the night’s recommendation was to ensure the final gathering “is as democratic as possible and preserves as much of the integrity of Representative Town Meeting as possible.”
He reminded the board that ARTM was originally scheduled for March 21. Governor Phil Scott’s declaration of emergency and associated executive orders responding to the COVID-19 pandemic had gone into effect a few days earlier, leading the board to postpone ARTM.
On June 15, Gov. Phil Scott signed into law a special legislative dispensation that allowed the legislative bodies of municipalities in Vermont to approve their respective fiscal year 2021 municipal budgets without a Town Meeting vote.
Approving the municipal budget is often the biggest item before meeting members at ARTM. The budget, however, is not the only item.
According to the original warning on the town’s website for the ultimately canceled March 21 meeting, members will consider appointing library trustees, voting on $190,105 for human service organizations, and approving funding to continue the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance’s joint marketing campaign.
Six possible ways
At a Selectboard meeting in late May, Elwell provided the board with six options for holding ARTM.
At the time, the committee was eyeing one of those options, the “pod method,” a scenario in which meeting members would gather in small in-person groups at multiple locations. Personnel from Brattleboro Community Television (BCTV) would connect these separate pods through technology for discussions and votes.
That method, however, received negative feedback. It required a lot of technology and potential new investments, and it still required groups of at least 25 in the same room, he explained.
Elwell returned to the board at a later meeting with two “viable ways forward,” he recounted.
Each meeting structure has the goal of protecting people from contracting the coronavirus while also preserving the democratic process of ARTM, like group debate, amending warning items, and taking votes, he said.
Neither of the proposed meeting structures, however, met both COVID-19 protection and democratic protection equally, Elwell continued. Both required different levels of sacrifice.
One scenario called for holding the meeting in two parts: an online informational meeting, where members could debate and discuss the warning items, and a second process, where members would independently cast Australian ballots.
The ballots would protect all the voting members’ right to vote regardless of technology or concerns about the virus, said Elwell.
“It is a legal way of holding a meeting under Vermont statute and not an uncommon method of holding a meeting like this in the communities that have open town meeting,” Elwell said.
Beyond a yes-or-no vote
That two-part meeting recommendation had the unforeseen effect of renewing members’ interest in an all-online meeting.
Those who provided feedback pointed out one of the main drawbacks to casting Australian ballots: they limit decision-making to yes-or-no votes.
Members would have no ability to amend articles, and “as you know from participating in Representative Town Meeting, there is always robust discussion and often amendments offered on various articles,” Elwell said.
Knowing that the community had a strong desire to preserve this ability to make amendments, the board asked staff to conduct a survey among meeting members.
The survey received 133 responses out of the 138 members, which Elwell felt was incredible and reflected how strongly meeting members want to hold the meeting. He called the results of that survey helpful in crafting the current “all-online,” or Zoom, recommendation.
He said the group is still working on some issues, but believes they can be addressed.
For instance, “In a meeting like this, where certain people are entitled to vote but others are allowed to participate but not vote, the town needs to ensure that they can identify only the voters entitled to vote,” he said.
“Our collective opinion is we don’t know all the answers yet on how this will be held, but we had a hard deadline that we needed to meet to report back to you and move this matter forward,” Elwell continued. “We feel confident that we can address the things that need to be addressed.”
Based on survey results and other feedback, the group believes that the all-online method meets the meeting members’ overall desire and technological abilities.
Elwell said that town staff know that 16 Town Meeting members need help either understanding how to use their technology at home or learning the Zoom platform. He said that staff and volunteers are preparing to help them.
Another issue that he said will need to be ironed out is the need for members to attend on their own devices and using separate internet connections. Sharing devices or networks can cause Zoom to mislabel participants and compromise the integrity of voting.
Elwell said that Zoom supports meetings of up to 250 participants. Connectivity would likely be an individual rather than a town-wide problem. He noted that 95 percent of the members responding to the survey said their internet can handle an online meeting lasting many hours.
“So while we continue to have some anxiety about this platform for a meeting of 140–150 people and the manner in which things could go wrong, we no longer have a concern about how the individuals who might otherwise struggle will be disenfranchised by that,” he said.
Board member Daniel Quipp stressed that the municipality should hold practice sessions for meeting members prior to Sept. 12. He also called for filming training videos on subjects such as Zoom, online meeting etiquette, and Robert’s Rules of Order.
Quipp also asked if the meeting could happen over two days. He said the board had held some long — five to six hour — online meetings of late. In 2013, participants endured a meeting that lasted for 13 hours.
“People are going to have their lives going on [while they are] off the screen,” he said. He didn’t want people to become “glazed over like a doughnut.”
Meeting members attended the customary informational meeting in March, before the distancing orders went into effect. BCTV recorded that meeting, and it remains available to stream.
Elwell said staff can email meeting members a link and, if possible, a transcript.