Town Meeting floors will reopen to voters

After Covid pause, 70% of Vermont communities set to convene Annual Town Meeting in person is headlining “The Return of Big Belt Buckles.” People is heralding “The ’70s Flip,” “’80s Workout Headbands,” and “’90s Supermodel Blowout.” But in Vermont, this season’s biggest retro trend will showcase plaid flannel, mud boots, and gloved hands raised high in the air.

After a pandemic pause, March Town Meeting is set for a comeback.

Some 70% of the state’s 247 municipalities are scheduled to return to shoulder-to-shoulder decision making on or around the traditional first Tuesday in March, according to a VTDigger survey. That’s about the same percentage that opted for Covid-safe mailable ballots or warm-weather outdoor proceedings during the pandemic.

State leaders recently approved legislation, signed into law last month, to extend such alternatives for another year [“Legislature extends towns’ flexibility for Town Meetings,” News, Jan. 25]. But 175 communities have decided to resume in-person Town Meetings next month — up from five in 2021 and about 40 in 2022 — with only a handful of others choosing to cancel or postpone until spring.

Windham County towns that will hold a March Town Meeting which will include some sort of floor vote include Athens, Brattleboro, Brookline, Dover, Grafton, Guilford, Halifax, Jamaica, Londonderry, Newfane, Putney, Rockingham, Stratton, Townshend, Vernon, Westminster, Whitingham, Wilmington, and Winhall.

“We are back to business as usual,” said Teri Gray, municipal clerk in the Northeast Kingdom town of Charleston, population 1,021.

“Like Covid never happened,” added LaDonna Dunn, clerk of the nearby town of Westfield, population 534.

Some 60 municipalities will cast ballots rather than hold Town Meetings.

“We are usually a floor-vote town,” said Becky Fielder, Pomfret’s town clerk, “but with recent local Covid outbreaks, the Selectboard thought it prudent to postpone the in-person vote one more year.”

Morristown has a different argument for once again replacing a gathering that drew about 200 participants for ballots cast by some 2,000 people.

“Traditional Town Meeting attendance has been dwindling,” Morristown Selectboard Chair Bob Beeman said. “While I appreciate the importance and historical value, it seems much better to have a large group of our community make the decisions for the town’s future.”

Many communities that switched to ballots during the pandemic aren’t changing back.

“Participation was way higher,” said Tinmouth Town Clerk Gail Fallar, “so our traditional floor meeting bit the dust.”

Duxbury had a special Town Meeting in November so it could vote to cast ballots going forward. Similar proposals are set for consideration next month in Bakersfield, Bradford, Coventry, Danville, Highgate, Lunenburg, Marshfield, Strafford, and Wilmington.

“We have asked this before,” Highgate Town Clerk Wendi Dusablon said, “but now that we have data, I think the voters might be ready to at least think about a change.”

Not everyone agrees. Marlboro leaders are facing “a pretty emotion-filled moment” as they propose a permanent move to ballots.

“There is a faction that is livid with us for supporting the change,” Marlboro Town Clerk Forrest Holzapfel said. “But we all feel the advantages of equalizing access to voting by mailing every voter the ballots is more important than preserving a tradition that excludes too many voters. As budgets have grown much larger in recent years, a voice vote by 10% or less of our voters is unjust.”

Some towns with meetings are tinkering with timing in hopes of drawing more people. Cornwall will move from the traditional first Tuesday (this year March 7) to Saturday morning, March 4, while Richmond will try Monday evening, March 6.

“Hopes are high for a greater turnout,” Cornwall Town Clerk Susan Johnson said.

Only a handful of communities are rescheduling proceedings until spring, down significantly from the up to 50 that did so the past two years. Sheffield and Wardsboro will postpone until May, when each can meet under a tent. Vershire and Windham will vote at later dates yet to be publicized.

Many municipalities casting ballots will hold in-person or online informational sessions (unlike official Town Meetings, they don’t allow the opportunity for floor votes). Such gatherings, in turn, are bringing back another seasonal staple: the shared meal.

Panton will hold a potluck before its March 6 informational session.

“Join your neighbors to share food and fellowship,” the town website says.

Killington will see the return of the “Town Informational Meeting Drive-Thru Pasta Dinner” before its March 6 gathering.

“$5 donation accepted and appreciated but not required,” the town website says.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates