Our best, imperfect, option

Using Australian balloting in place of in-person Annual Town Meeting diminishes the power of our direct democracy. But the current, grim conditions of the global pandemic make it preferable to creating a superspreader event.

NEWFANE — To members of the Newfane Selectboard:

At the Dec. 7 meeting, I outlined three options for holding Town Meeting safely on March 2, 2021.

1. We can hold the budget and policy portion of our Annual Town Meeting from the floor as usual. However, according to the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, we would have to comply with mandatory health and safety requirements from the CDC, the Vermont Department of Health, the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, and the Secretary of State's office.

In addition to the mandatory wearing of masks, current public safety guidelines allow only 1 person per 100 square feet and a maximum of 75 people indoors. Even with our declining attendance at Town Meeting in recent years, we have had more than 75 people attend.

2. Convening remotely is a possibility. To do so, we would have to request permission from the state Legislature. Even if it were granted, we do not have the technical infrastructure in place to vote electronically.

While Brattleboro held their 2020 Annual Representative Town Meeting remotely with great success, that success was due to a team effort that included weeks of planning and the help of BCTV.

Newfane most likely has tech-savvy residents to pull off the technical aspects of running a remote Town Meeting, but we would be creating a barrier to participation for the third of Newfane households that have no or inadequate internet service.

When the Selectboard recently voted to have Newfane join the Deerfield Valley Communications Union District, the town came a step closer to having universal connectivity. Perhaps then we will be able to hold Town Meeting remotely.

3. The third option is to adopt the Australian ballot to vote on all the warned articles on March 2, 2021. The Legislature has passed Act 162, which temporarily allows a town to apply the Australian ballot system for Town Meetings in 2021.

The decision to adopt the Australian ballot lies with the Selectboard, by a majority of its total membership at a duly warned meeting.

Australian balloting would be only for 2021; Town Meetings and Special Town Meetings would revert to floor meetings in 2022.

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When you asked for my opinion at the Dec. 7 board meeting, I hesitated. But the rate of community spread of COVID-19 continues to increase, even in Vermont, and is expected to get worse due to the winter holidays. Not even widespread immunization slated to start soon will give us enough widespread community protection by March.

Given these factors, I am now of the opinion that adopting the Australian ballot system for town-wide votes in 2021 is our best, imperfect, option.

The decision whether or not to move to Australian ballot for 2021 must be made before the Selectboard approves the warning for Town Meeting, not less than 30 days before Town Meeting Day. VLCT urges towns to make this decision soon.

Using Australian balloting requires an informational hearing be held within the 10 days immediately preceding the Town Meeting at which the Australian ballot is used. The purpose of this hearing is to afford voters the chance to discuss the articles on the warning. It is a chance for debate, but precludes amending any of the articles.

The informational hearing must be warned at least 10 days in advance of the hearing. Unlike Town Meeting, the information hearing is a public hearing, subject to Vermont's Open Meeting Law as modified by the temporary COVID-19 measures that allow electronic participation. The Selectboard, not the town moderator, administers the hearing.

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While it's my opinion that using Australian balloting in place of a floor meeting diminishes the power of our direct democracy, the current, grim conditions of the global pandemic make it preferable to turning our Annual Town Meeting into a superspreader event.

Australian balloting does not allow for robust debate and amendments, but voters have the same power to influence the budget they have always had: They can attend the Selectboard's budgeting deliberations and speak to specific line items before they are adopted. Perhaps the silver lining this year will be more interest and participation in the building of the town budget before it comes to a town-wide vote.

If I have been persuasive here, I will have written myself out of a job. I will, however, submit a consent form to have my name on the ballot for town moderator in the great hope that we will all congregate in person for Annual Town Meeting on March 8, 2022.

Until then, I thank you for all your work on behalf of the Town of Newfane, and wish you all continued good health.

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