BCTV producer Cor Trowbridge monitors the feed from the Putney Annual Town Meeting on March 7.
Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons
BCTV producer Cor Trowbridge monitors the feed from the Putney Annual Town Meeting on March 7.

Town Meetings return to normal ... almost

After three years of upended civic life, most towns meet in person

Town Meeting Day always has a festive air about it at the Putney Central School gymnasium.

The eighth-graders set up a table filled with homemade treats for sale as a fundraiser for their class trip. Information tables from the town library, the Conservation Commission, the Putney Foodshelf, and other nonprofits take up the outer edges of one half of the gym, right across from the voting booths.

The other half of the gym, divided by a large curtain, is devoted to Town Meeting, and about three-quarters of the seats were full by the time Moderator Meg Mott called the meeting to order, not long after 10 a.m.

It was the first in-person Town Meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, and voters and town officials alike were happy to be holding it in the gym once more.

They were so happy to do so, they took six hours to take care of the town's business.

About 75% of Vermont towns like Putney went with the traditional in-person Town Meeting on or around the first Tuesday in March. Wardsboro and Windham decided to postpone their in-person meetings until May.

Around 60 communities, including Dummerston and Marlboro, chose this year to vote on articles by Australian ballot out of continued concerns about COVID-19.

In Rockingham, Marlboro, and Wilmington, voters considered making Australian ballot voting rather than in-person meetings the norm going forward.

On a voice vote that came at the end of a five-hour meeting, Wilmington voted unanimously to keep in-person meetings and Rockingham voters also rejected the proposal, 69-39.

Marlboro overwhelmingly voted to adopt the Australian ballot for all elections (392–28), budget matters (321–98), and public questions (319–101).

Few disagreements at meetings

Marlboro voters decisively rejected a proposal calling for the elimination of grades seven and eight at the Marlboro School (155–272).

Dummerston joined nearly 100 other communities in Vermont that have signed on to a Declaration of Inclusion. Voters approved the advisory article in support of diversity and equity, 382–34. They also approved all articles on their warrant.

Brookline voters approved their town budgets but there were no volunteers to fill two open seats on the five-member Selectboard that have been vacant since last May. Only 50 of the town's 461 registered voters attended the Monday night meeting.

Stratton rejected a proposal to reduce its school board from five members to three and approved a non-binding resolution calling on the school board, state Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, and Gov. Phil Scott to support school choice.

The issue is important to Stratton, since its 54 school-age children are tuitioned out to neighboring schools with the town picking up the tab.

Wilmington voters approved eliminating the town lister position in favor of a professionally qualified assessor.

In “big ticket” items on Town Meeting warrants, Wilmington approved $260,000 of repairs for its municipal offices. Rockingham approved $103,000 for structural repairs to the historic Rockingham Meeting House, while Dummerston approved $500,000 for a new fire truck.

On a 69-39 vote, Rockingham voters rejected spending $6,000 for a part-time contract with the Windham County Sheriff's Department to patrol Bartonsville and other rural sections of the town.

Voters in Halifax, Jamaica, and Londonderry considered imposing 1% local option tax on rooms, meals, retail sales, and alcohol.

Halifax decided to take a pass on voting for the 1% tax, as voters wanted more information about before making a decision. Jamaica and Londonderry approved the new local taxes.

Dover voted to give town employees a 4% pay raise and its police officers a 10% raise. Highway crew members will get a $2.50-per-hour pay increase.

Vernon voters approved all but one article on their warrant: a $10,000 expenditure for the equipment replacement fund. Only 134 of the town's 1,900 registered voters participated in the March 6 night meeting, which was held in the elementary school gym to allow for social distancing. It was their first indoor meeting since 2020.

Guilford voters approved all the articles, including one that empowers the Selectboard to appoint a town treasurer, previously an elected position. Voters ultimately agreed on the change, but not before a vigorous debate.

Brattleboro, the only town in Vermont that uses a Representative Town Meeting, will have its annual meeting on Saturday, March 25 in the Brattleboro Union High School gym.

Voters there went to the polls Tuesday, re-electing Elizabeth McLoughlin to the Selectboard and ousting its current clerk, Jessica Callahan Gelter. Peter “Fish” Case and Franz Reichsman will join the board [story, this issue].

Tradition versus inclusion

The two-year pause in holding in-person meetings spurred many communities to try mailed ballots. That pandemic measure sparked record voter participation - and calls to move permanently from making decisions in-person to on-paper.

“A higher level of voter engagement on budget decisions feels vital to the health of our little democracy,” said Marlboro Town Clerk Forrest Holzapfel, whose town voted to retain the remote balloting.

But old-fashioned floor votes still have their supporters. Westminster residents woke on March 4 to a foot of snow, but the local highway department began plowing at 5 a.m. so that a crowd of 70 people could attend Town Meeting at 10 a.m.

Attendance varied on Monday night, with meetings in Rockingham, Vernon, Brookline, and Athens (which tried a Monday night meeting this year), and at the Tuesday morning meetings.

“We have strong feelings about voting from the floor and the discussion and ability to amend articles that the precious tradition allows,” said Dover Town Clerk Andy McLean.

Marlboro, for its part, used its recent informational session to discuss the pros and cons of a switch to Australian balloting.

“I feel the one advantage to Town Meeting is people raise their questions and issues, there can be a revision of the budgets, and you walk away with a completed situation,” resident Andy Reichsman said.

But others have countered that most working people can't gather on the traditional first Tuesday in March, limiting decision-making to residents who are retired or can take time off.

“We keep talking about the glory of a 200-year Town Meeting tradition, but 200 years ago women and Black people weren't even allowed to vote,” Marlboro resident Carol Ann Johnson said. “I just don't think that 100 people should have the only vote on a $4 million budget.”

Statewide, the Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights has released a statement urging more inclusion.

“Unfortunately, for too long, Town Meeting Day has not provided opportunity for equal representation, including for people with disabilities, older Vermonters, those without access to transportation, and people who are unable to obtain child care or time off from work,” it said.

The coalition is advocating for more use of ballots and audiovisual technology. Others are suggesting that people who want to engage in the municipal process attend proceedings throughout the year.

“A lot of people show up at Town Meeting and think they're participating in the making of the sausage, but they're not,” Johnson said in Marlboro.

“They need to get involved early on. They need to go to the Selectboard and school board meetings,” she said. “That's where it happens.”

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