An exercise in textbook democracy

With Covid receding but still here, a new law provides municipalities with temporary alternative means of gathering for Town Meeting. It isn’t subverting democracy. This new technology has made access to government available to more people than ever.

PUTNEY — As soon as the 2023-24 Legislative session began, lawmakers started hearing from town clerks, Selectboards, school board members, town school committee members, and other citizens to pass H.42 (“An act relating to temporary alternative procedures for annual municipal meetings and electronic meetings of public bodies,” signed into law on Jan. 25) — and do it ASAP.

Please note the key phrase in the title of the bill: “temporary alternative.”

These are temporary alternatives to how we recognize health and safety needs predicated by the fact that COVID-19 is receding, but not gone.

Passing H.42 was an exercise in textbook democracy. The public overwhelmingly asked for a law to allow towns to make their own choices about meetings.

The Legislature and the Governor expedited their requests for continued flexibility and did so in time for all concerned to meet their deadlines in preparing for their respective Town Meetings.

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The roots of this bill go back to the onset of the pandemic, when public meeting policy was adjusted to specifically protect the health and safety of the public — most notably, those serving the public. Our town clerks, election volunteers, and board members wanted to continue serving the public, yet they needed to minimize their risk of catching Covid.

Only a small minority of hardcore Covid deniers spoke against these actions, which included policies for masking. They claimed it was unnecessary and anti-democratic.

Nothing in this year’s bill mandates cancelling in-person Town Meeting or any other municipal meeting. Rather, it allows Selectboards to choose how they want to proceed, and most towns are choosing in-person Town Meetings this year. My understanding is that Dummerston is the only town in Windham County that has chosen not to hold an in-person Town Meeting.

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As we evaluate the changes in laws made since Covid, across the state we see increased participation in town, city, and state government. Selectboards, school boards, and special committees have found that by using hybrid options, more people participate.

Online testimony to the Legislature is used more, especially by people who live far from the statehouse. Online viewing is rising for both Legislative floor action and committee action.

Proceeding cautiously with these temporary measures is warranted. As the Legislative session continues and the 25 House and Senate committees address their respective lists of priorities, this issue will be revisited.

However you feel about the laws, please let your legislators know, so that your input is added to the mix. This bill will “sugar off,” depending on that input, to make Democracy more accessible to the most number of people.

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Any attempts to paint this legislation as anything other than improving access to democracy is just one more attempt from the fringe to cast aspersions on our elections and democracy itself.

We have seen similar from those who refuse to admit the damage to democracy from the Jan. 6, 2021 attacks on the U.S. Capitol — along with the ensuing misinformation. (“They were just citizens enjoying a visit to the nation’s capital.”)

Thankfully, those perspectives were rejected by voters across our county, state, and country. Election denial, climate-change denial, denial of reproductive rights, and the like didn’t fool voters in the last election.

Seeing H.42 through that lens isn’t going to fool Vermonters now, either.

The new law opens the doors to the process of government at every level, including the crafting of those “temporary alternatives.” What’s more, it outlines the process of deciding how to do it and lets that happen at the local level.

A win-win for democracy.

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