For Brattleboro meeting members, no free lunch

Annual Representative Town Meeting rejects tax-funded lunch as it eats up 12 hours online

BRATTLEBORO — Elected Town Meeting representatives spurned a call to feed themselves a $2,500 tax-funded lunch. But that didn't stop them from spending 12 hours on March 19 chewing over $20 million in municipal matters.

“Democracy is messy, and it can be frustrating,” Prudence MacKinney, vice chair of the Planning Commission, told a Zoom audience at the start of Vermont's only state-sanctioned virtual Town Meeting. “It takes time and effort to work well.”

It also requires fuel, according to a Town Meeting Steering Committee that proposed a $15-a-person municipally funded meal once representatives move back to in-person sessions as soon as next year.

“Providing lunch feels like an easy, community-building and accessibility-promoting thing we can do, just the way we have ASL interpreters, just the way we have wheelchair accessibility, just the way we have closed captioning, just the way we provide child care,” committee member Sonia Silbert said.

Under the proposal, the town would hire a caterer to feed all 150 representatives, who are elected annually to keep attendance manageable.

“We would like lunch to be substantive, providing both protein and vegetables, and meet a wide variety of food needs, including vegetarian, lactose free, and gluten free, and sourced locally as much as possible,” Silbert said.

But representatives rejected the proposal, 69-49.

“I think it's seen as an unnecessary taxpayer expense that doesn't land very well amongst the public at large,” Selectboard member Tim Wessel said.

“I have talked to my neighbors,” representative Maya Hasegawa added, “and they are opposed to spending this money.”

Most Vermont municipalities decide budgets and other ballot questions at annual meetings on or around the first Tuesday in March. Brattleboro, the state's seventh most populous, waits to gather on what's usually the third Saturday of the month.

Curbing the crowd by electing representatives hasn't limited the meeting's length. This year's participants, for example, were about to adopt the same online guidelines they've approved the past two pandemic years when one of their own objected.

“It deserves a full debate,” said Kurt Daims.

A similar motion to again invite municipal staff into the proceedings brought a stronger objection from fellow representative Rikki Risatti.

“These are all systemic methods of fascism,” Risatti said.

A routine request to elect two members to the town's Capital Grant Review Board - a group that local leaders don't anticipate will have any work this year - sparked an hour of discussion.

A subsequent call to simply receive a report submitted by the Town Meeting Steering Committee - a group that found almost 70 percent of surveyed townspeople want shorter sessions - consumed another hour.

Representatives who began the meeting at 8:30 a.m. didn't reach the municipal budget until 5 p.m., when they approved $19.3 million in spending for the coming fiscal year after defeating a call to cut $500,000 out of concern for inflation.

At least one participant questioned the earlier, lengthier $2,500 lunch debate versus the later, shorter budget decision.

“The way it's structured right now, we end up nickel-and-diming ourselves out of individual articles and then at the end when we're all tired, we say, 'Oh, there's $20 million,'” representative Eli Coughlin-Galbraith said.

Local leaders replied they couldn't present the final spending figure for approval until the meeting decided everything else.

“All of the other articles preceding it impact the amount,” Selectboard Clerk Daniel Quipp said.

Although representatives talked for 12 hours, many cheered the fact they completed their agenda in a single day.

Before the pandemic moved proceedings online, the longest meeting in memory was in 2019, when participants began at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 9:27 p.m.

COVID-19 changed everything. Brattleboro is the only municipality the state has allowed to hold an official town meeting electronically, as its unique gathering of elected representatives is the sole one that can limit online participation to official members and let everyone else watch on public access television.

Since the town has traded metal folding chairs for home couches, representatives have smashed their previous time records, with last year's 15-hour online meeting bleeding well into Sunday.

“It is unfortunate the budget usually does come at a point where everybody is very tired,” Quipp said. “I feel it's incumbent upon us to find places for efficiencies where we can and, also, the body needs to have the discussion that it has.”

“It's a tough balance,” he said.

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