As Vermont Town Meetings prepare to return to the floor, some COVID-19 changes remain



Published: 01-18-2024 6:53 PM

For the first time in four years, none of Vermont’s 247 municipalities have publicly announced plans to cancel in-person March Town Meetings due to COVID-19 concerns, according to a VTDigger survey, although many are permanently adopting such supplemental pandemic protocols as mail-in ballots and online viewing options.

“It will be business as usual,” Town Clerk Mariah Cilley said from Tunbridge, the central Vermont community of 1,337 residents that’s most recognized as the axis of the state’s annual World’s Fair.

Municipalities last held a full slate of shoulder-to-shoulder meetings in March 2020, just 10 days before Gov. Phil Scott declared a pandemic state of emergency. The number of floor votes fell to a half-dozen in 2021 before rising to about 40 in 2022 and about 180 in 2023, with many rescheduled to outdoor venues in the spring.

The state has approved flexibility measures for planning and scheduling Town Meetings through July 1, 2024, having seen about 80% of communities make alterations in 2021 and almost 75% in 2022.

But all of the 130 cities and towns that responded to a VTDigger survey — from Arlington, Vt., in the south to Westfield, Vt., in the Northeast Kingdom — report they aren’t planning any major pandemic-related changes on or around the customary first Tuesday in March.

“So far, everyone anticipates returning to pre-COVID-19 traditions,” Maidstone, Vt., Town Clerk Amy Pear summed up.

That said, a number of municipalities — starting with the state’s largest city of Burlington — have voted to mail local ballots to all registered voters on a permanent basis. Many towns with longtime floor meetings, for their part, are switching from making decisions in-person to on-paper.

Take Pomfret, which voted last year to switch from annual meetings, which were often limited to residents who were retired or could take time off, to ballots available to everyone in advance.

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“Though many were dismayed at the thought of losing the floor vote tradition, we couldn’t ignore the increase in voter input and participation that the Australian ballot format provided,” Pomfret Town Clerk Becky Fielder said.

In a similar vein, Duxbury, Vt., has moved to ballots with a drive-thru drop-off option, all while appeasing meeting supporters with an advance “Community Have Your Say Day” where residents can voice their opinions, Town Clerk Maureen Harvey said.

No state agency tracks how localities vote, but the Vermont League of Cities and Towns expressed surprise last year after learning that nearly 20 communities were weighing whether to move from meetings to partial or full balloting.

“While VLCT does not have data on permanent transitions away from floor meetings in previous years, this number seems significant to us,” the nonprofit’s executive director, Ted Brady, wrote in a report.

Traditional floor votes still have their supporters, with several communities adding online viewing options or altering their schedules in hopes of boosting attendance.

Marshfield, Vt., will try a Sunday, March 3, meeting “to see if we can get more participation,” Town Clerk Bobbi Brimblecombe said.

Pittsfield, Vt., will move this year’s meeting to Saturday, March 9, so as not to conflict with the state’s Tuesday, March 5, presidential primary, Town Clerk Tricia Abbondelo said.

Then again, Coventry, Vt., will keep its meeting on the primary date in hopes of attracting more people.

“Last year there was a significant decline in voters coming to Town Meeting,” Coventry Town Clerk Deb Tanguay said. “The presidential primary may bring out more voters.”

Other local leaders note that although they aren’t canceling meetings because of COVID-19, they’re still concerned about it. Many promise to offer such safety measures as hand sanitizer and one-time-use pens.

“I will try to prevent as many germs from spreading as possible,” Saint Albans, Vt., City Clerk Nicole Robtoy said.