On Town Meeting Day, the first Tuesday in March, citizens across Vermont come together in their communities to discuss the business of their towns.
For over 200 years, Town Meeting Day has been an important political event as Vermonters elect local officers and vote on budgets. It has also been a time for neighbors to discuss the civic issues of their community, state, and nation.
This piece is designed to help you learn about Vermont's Town Meeting Day, its history, and how it works today, with the hope that it will help you get involved in your town meeting.
The origin of Town Meeting Day
The first town meeting in America was in Massachusetts in 1633, but the practice of direct democracy dates back to around 400 B.C. in Athens.
The first Town Meeting in these parts was held in Bennington in 1762, 15 years before Vermont was created.
In the late 1700s, as today, town citizens in Vermont held meetings so that they could address the problems and issues they faced collectively, issues like whether to let pigs run free or whether smallpox vaccinations should be allowed in the town. Voters also decided what goods or labor could be used as payment for taxes. Town Meeting also served a social function, as it does today.
What is Town Meeting Day?
On the first Tuesday of March, most Vermont towns hold a meeting to elect local officials, approve a budget for the following year, and conduct other local business.
Vermont Town Meetings (with the one exception of Brattleboro) are the practice of direct democracy. That is, eligible citizens of the town may vote on specific issues that are announced through a warning.
The Town Meeting warning tells us when and where town meeting will be held, and it lists all of the articles (topics) that are going to be discussed and voted on at the meeting. The warning must be posted at least 30 days before the meeting.
Voting at Town Meeting
Towns can vote in two different ways at March Town Meeting: by floor meeting or by Australian ballot.
Most towns use a combination of both voting methods. In 2008, approximately 15 towns conducted all of the town meeting business using Australian ballot voting, 61 decided all of their business by floor vote, and 170 towns used a combination.
The floor meeting is what we generally picture a Vermont Town Meeting to be like. It is when people gather at a public meeting place to discuss and vote on issues.
Floor meetings can last a few hours, or they can go all day. The length of the meeting depends on how many articles are on the warning and how much discussion takes place over the issues raised by the articles.
Australian ballot voting, which is how we cast our ballots at the general election in November, takes only a few minutes. It takes place at a polling place where voters mark a secret ballot that is counted after the polls close.
Town Boards of Civil Authority determine when the polls open in the morning (between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m.). All polls must close at 7 p.m.
At a floor meeting there are no representatives (except in Brattleboro, which uses a system of representative democracy for its town meeting). Citizens speak directly for themselves, seeking to clarify or amend items to be voted, or to persuade those present on whether to vote for a particular measure.
Town Meeting holiday
Vermont law makes Town Meeting Day a holiday for employees of state government. The law also gives an employee the right to take unpaid leave from work to attend his or her Annual Town Meeting, subject to the essential operation of the business or government.
An employee must give the employer at least seven days notice if he or she wants to take advantage of this right to attend Town Meeting.
Students who are over 18 also have the right to attend Town Meeting, unless the student is in state custody at a secure facility.
The moderator's job is to ensure that the meeting is orderly and fair. He or she calls for votes on each item of business and announces the decisions of the voters. The moderator must also interpret and apply rules governing how the discussion and votes proceed.
Unless the voters decide to pass over an article or rearrange the order of the articles, the meeting will address each article in turn, from the first to the last, until they are all addressed.
Vermont law requires that the moderator use a very formal procedure to run the meeting called Robert's Rules of Order, which sets specific rules to help the moderator keep order and ensure that the meeting is fair. These rules are published in a small book that can be referred to during the meeting if necessary.
Who may participate?
Only legal voters may participate in Town Meeting.
Of course, non-voters (people who live in other towns, people who are not old enough to register to vote, or people who live in town but who are not registered to vote at all or who are registered elsewhere) may never vote at Town Meeting.
This means that a non-voter does not have a right to speak at Town Meeting unless the meeting passes a motion to allow the individual to “address the assembly.” This motion must pass by a two-thirds majority vote.
There is a well-known story about a governor who visited one of Vermont's Town Meetings and asked permission to address the assembly.
The town was unhappy about some piece of legislation the governor had supported and, as a result, the vote to permit her to speak to the meeting initially failed. After some debate, a motion to reconsider was passed and the governor was allowed to address the meeting.
The business of the meeting
At Town Meeting, voters hear and approve reports from town officers, elect new officials, and review and approve a budget for the town.
Voters also decide whether to raise money from taxes to give to groups that serve the town, like a youth center, a homeless shelter, or a transportation program for the elderly.
Some communities also vote on the school budget at a School District Meeting warned for the same day as Town Meeting.
Most items on the warning for Town Meeting are required by Vermont law, but some articles are added by the Selectboard so that the board can get feedback or approval from the citizens.
Other articles can be added by local officials or by citizens who bring in a petition signed by 5 percent of the town's registered voters.
Some towns discuss social issues facing the region, the state, or the country even if the decision has no legal standing (nonbinding vote). Past examples include whether to ban genetically engineered seeds, whether the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant should close, or whether the country should to go to war.
Such articles are usually added to the Town Meeting warning by voters who bring a petition to the Selectboard, but occasionally a Selectboard will agree to put the articles on the warning without a petition.
Not every petitioned article must be included in the warning. The topic for discussion must be an issue that the voters have the power to decide.
One Selectboard asked its town voters to decide where the new Town Hall should be built. This was an issue the board could have decided on its own, but this board preferred to let its townspeople help make such an important decision.
The budget is the amount of money the town plans to spend to support the town government. It pays for town buildings, roads, town employees, the town library, and other expenses. The budget is paid for by taxing the property owned by individuals and businesses in the town.
Elections of local officials
Vermont law requires voters to elect a variety of officials at Town Meeting. Some are elected to serve for one year. Others are elected to serve for as long as a three-year term.
Vermont law requires local officials to be elected by paper ballot on the Town Meeting floor, unless they are elected by Australian ballot.
Towns that elect officers at a floor meeting nominate candidates, who can then accept or decline to run. Once nominations are closed, paper is passed out, and voters write out their preference.
If no candidate receives a majority vote, the moderator will ask voters to vote again. If no candidate receives a majority of the votes by the third ballot, the moderator eliminates the candidate with the least votes and repeats the procedure until someone receives a majority of the votes.
If only one person is nominated for a position, a voter can move to direct the clerk to cast a single ballot in favor of the person nominated. This saves time and paper!
In towns that vote by Australian ballot, the candidate who receives the most votes wins. Towns that elect officers by Australian ballot require candidates to submit a nominating petition signed by 30 voters or 1 percent of the voter base, whichever is less. The petition must clearly indicate the office and term length on the petition prior to circulating it for signatures.
The nominating petition must be filed with the municipal clerk no later than 5 p.m. on the sixth Monday preceding the day of the election.
In many towns, it is difficult to find people willing to run for every town office. If no one is elected at Town Meeting, the office is vacant. The Selectboard must appoint someone to fill the vacancy.
Examples of local officials who are elected at Town Meeting:
• Moderator - Runs the Annual Town Meeting and any Special Town Meetings during the year.
• Selectboard - A board of three to five people who run the town. They implement decisions made at town meeting. (In cities, voters elect a city council and mayor instead.)
• Town Clerk - Runs elections and keeps records (land records, and records of marriages, births, and deaths).
• Treasurer - Oversees the town's finances, pays bills, and balances the accounts.
• Listers - Decide the value of land and buildings in the town. (Properties that have a higher value pay a larger tax.)
• Auditor - Reports on whether the town is handling and spending its money correctly. The auditor's report is discussed at Town Meeting.