Legislature extends towns’ flexibility for Town Meetings

If signed by governor, bill would continue with pandemic-inspired measures like ballots and online information sessions

The Vermont Legislature has approved a two-year extension of COVID-19-era options for how and when the state’s 247 cities and towns decide upon local leaders, spending, and special articles.

Bill H.42 mirrors legislation passed in 2021 and 2022 that allowed municipalities to make short-term, pandemic-safe changes to Town Meeting — traditionally held on or around the first Tuesday in March — and gather governing boards solely online.

“With the rising cases of Covid variants, there’s a real question in a lot of our communities about whether we can get participation in decisions about local government without some flexibility,” said Rep. Michael McCarthy, a St. Albans Democrat and chair of the House Government Operations and Military Affairs Committee.

Some 80% of municipalities in 2021 and almost 75% in 2022 used the temporary laws to replace shoulder-to-shoulder decision-making with mailable ballots, while most of the rest tapped the legislation to reschedule proceedings until residents could open windows or gather outdoors in warmer weather.

In 2021, only five communities held an in-person March Town Meeting, with each having little on the agenda or gaveling in for the sole purpose of adjourning to a later date. In 2022, that figure rose to about 40 — or 15% of the state’s cities and towns.

The latest bill, now awaiting the governor’s signature, will continue the options of switching from floor voting to ballots, rescheduling Town Meetings, and holding public information sessions online until July 1, 2024.

The move isn’t expected to affect Vermont’s 28 cities and towns with 5,000 or more people, as they annually vote on local matters using ballots. But most of the 219 communities with smaller populations traditionally hold some sort of Town Meeting, which must be warned at least 30 days in advance — or by Feb. 5 this year for those seeking to take municipal action on the traditional first Tuesday in March.

The extension has received support from the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office and from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, a municipal support organization, both of which hope the Legislature will consider granting communities more permanent flexibility.

“Many of the temporary and emergency provisions required during the pandemic have caused us to rethink how and why we do things,” replied Sen. Ruth Hardy, an East Middlebury Democrat and chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee.

“We want to create a new normal where we ultimately both return to what works and reinvent what does not,” she said.

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