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Pandemic throws wrench in planning Town Meetings

Many towns choose Australian ballot, while others will vote now and wait until spring to meet in-person

With additional reporting from Commons News Editor Randolph T. Holhut

—Vermont electoral officials agree: The COVID-19 pandemic will significantly upend this year’s traditional Town Meeting season.They just can’t sum up how yet.“We know of a few towns that have said they’re going to change their date or move to Australian ballot,” said Secretary of State Jim Condos. “But everybody at this point is kind of playing it by ear.”In a typical year, Vermont’s municipalities would now be posting notices for town meetings and votes on or around the first Tuesday in March. But coronavirus concerns have spurred municipalities to pause, so they can consider state calls to either postpone in-person gatherings until later this year or opt for mailable ballots.“The riskiest thing right now is to hold a floor meeting,” said Will Senning, the state’s director of elections.On Jan. 19, Gov. Phil Scott signed a temporary law that gives local leaders several options for rescheduling or switching to ballots — actions that voters usually have to approve a year in advance.The secretary of state’s office is sharing a summary of what’s permitted, as well as floor meeting guidance that calls for:• Health screenings and collection of names and contact information of all who attend.• Crowd limits of 50 percent of fire safety occupancy, or one person per 100 square feet, whichever ensures distancing of at least 6 feet.• Cloth face coverings over the mouth and nose, even when someone is speaking.• No discussion of questions not on the agenda or extras such as potluck meals, bake sales, or staffed information tables.“While municipalities are empowered to make individual decisions to fit their circumstance,” the guidance continues, “mask mandates and building capacity limitations may present municipalities with difficult legal questions if voters are turned away or if the meeting puts voters in an unsafe situation.”The guidance concludes: “Municipalities are strongly encouraged to not conduct their annual meetings in-person (‘from the floor’) this year.”All that information hasn’t stopped local leaders from phoning the secretary of state’s office and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, an organization that offers support and technical assistance to municipalities.“We’ve been blown out of the water by the number of calls we’ve received,” said Karen Horn, the league’s director of public policy and advocacy. “A lot of places are still trying to figure it out.”

Approaches vary in Windham County

—Windham County towns have chosen different approaches for their upcoming Town Meetings.• Westminster: In Westminster, the Selectboard will convene its Town Meeting on Saturday, Feb. 27. This meeting will open, then adjourn.The next week, on Town Meeting Day, March 2, voters will elect town officers and consider budgets for Bellows Falls Union High School and River Valley Technical School by Australian ballot at the Westminster Town Hall. Polling times are still to be determined.Presumably, Annual Town Meeting will resume on Saturday, May 15, at 10 a.m., on the Westminster Institute lawn. But no definitive date has been given for the rescheduled Town Meeting, and the Selectboard reminded voters that Town Meeting and the River Valleys Unified School District meeting may not be scheduled too closely.• Putney: The Selectboard voted on Jan. 27 to hold its 2021 Annual Town Meeting by Australian ballot on the traditional date. Voting on all town articles will take place on Tuesday, March 2 at the Putney Fire Station, 21 Carl Snyder Dr.Polls will be open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.The Selectboard also voted to require the Town Clerk to mail absentee ballots to all active legal voters on or about Feb. 10. Voters are urged to visit their Vermont My Voter Page or contact Town Clerk Jonathan Johnson to confirm their mailing address.A variety of officers and articles will appear on the ballot. Voters will be asked to choose a moderator, Selectboard member, lister, cemetery commissioner, and trustees of the Putney Public Library.In addition, voters will consider seven articles, including two articles relative to the future of the Windham Southeast School District.Finally, two advisory resolutions sponsored by citizen petitions concern universal health care and climate change.The town report is expected to be mailed between Feb. 16 and 19. An informational meeting will be held via Zoom at on Saturday, Feb. 27, at 10 a.m. A warning and agenda, including remote access information, is forthcoming.Vernon: Local leaders decided to retain their usual first Tuesday in March ballot to decide town officeholders and the school budget, but they will reschedule floor debate on everything else in May.“Local government in Vermont is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, but most towns, including mine, want the right to have a public discussion of issues as opposed to just voting ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Vernon Town Clerk Tim Arsenault said. “We’ve been looking at doing something daytime or nighttime, inside or outside — we haven’t discounted anything yet.”• Brattleboro — Vermont’s seventh-most-populous municipality with about 11,000 people — is the only locality that aims to keep Town Meeting attendance manageable by limiting proceedings to 140 elected representatives.The town has once again received legislative permission to debate and make decisions online this year, as it did for the first time last fall when it shared a Zoom link with eligible participants.However, the state isn’t allowing any other city or town to do the same because of concerns that those communities don’t have the ability to open participation to all locals — and to close it to outsiders.“Not everybody has access to a computer or a smartphone,” Condos said. “And how do you make sure that everybody who’s online is registered and allowed to vote?”The secretary of state’s office is surveying municipalities about their Town Meeting plans in hopes of posting some sort of calendar in the near future.“There’s a lot of angst about losing traditional floor meetings and the opportunity to get together as a community and debate,” Senning said.“Nobody’s trying to take that away permanently,” he said. “These changes are temporary. These changes are one year only.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #598 (Wednesday, February 3, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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