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Jim Kenyon: Town Meeting without the meeting is a strange sight

  • Michael Hanitchak, of Strafford, Vt., drops his ballot into a box outside the town offices on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Town Meeting is very different this year for Vermont towns. The annual meeting is usually held at the Strafford Town House, in the background. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Selectboard member Mary Linehan, left, and Town Clerk Lisa Bragg wait for voters at the town offices in Strafford, Vt., during Town Meeting Day on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. Most voters were dropping their ballots in a box outside the offices, but they could fill out their ballot inside if needed. Town Meeting is very different for Vermont towns this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Linehan and Bragg were discussing the possibilities of new town offices. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Selectboard member Sharon Harkay campaigns outside Town Hall in Thetford, Vt., with her dog Jada and Orin Pacht, who is a candidate for Harkay's seat, on Tuesday, March, 2, 2021. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 3/2/2021 8:44:38 PM
Modified: 3/3/2021 11:24:03 AM

A small, plain sign at the bottom of the hill leading to the historic Strafford Town House says “Town Meeting has been held here every March since 1801.”

Until Tuesday.

In Strafford and many other towns across Vermont, Tuesday was the Town Meeting Day that wasn’t.

According to VtDigger, about 80% of Vermont communities are playing it safe and forgoing their annual March town meeting traditions during the coronavirus pandemic.

In Strafford that meant no voting from the floor or back-and-forth debate on how much school spending is too much. (Last year, Town Meeting Day voters shot down the school district’s proposed budget, 54-39.)

It also meant no potluck lunch spread. Organized by the elementary school’s PTA, the lunch had always been a smorgasbord of casseroles, baked beans, chili, salads and desserts.

Without Town Meeting, the first Tuesday of March figured to be “just another day of the week when usually it’s a day that you look forward to,” Strafford resident Martha Walke, a retired school librarian and teacher, told me when I called her on Monday.

At a traditional Strafford Town Meeting, “you could disagree with people on an issue, but afterward you could still be friends,” Walke said. “You learn not to take it personally.”

State Rep. Jim Masland, a Thetford Democrat whose district includes Strafford, made a habit of stopping by the Town House to update residents on what the Legislature was doing — or not doing, depending on your perspective.

“Strafford is a classic Vermont Town Meeting,” Masland told me. “People say what they want to say.”

Then they have lunch.

On Tuesday morning, the wind howled and a light coat of fresh snow drifted across Justin Morrill Highway, just down the road from the Strafford Town House, which dates back to 1799.

Inside the cramped quarters of the Strafford Town Office, Town Clerk Lisa Bragg, Assistant Town Clerk Regina Josler and Mary Linehan, who was elected to the Selectboard last year, sat and waited for voters.

Like many Vermont communities, Strafford used Australian balloting this year. In the first two hours the polls were open, two people cast votes.

But it wasn’t a sign of voter apathy. By early Tuesday morning, more than 350 Strafford residents had voted by mail or opted for the drop box outside the Town Office building.

Town Meeting Day typically draws a crowd of 200 or so in Strafford. “We love our Town Meeting and we want dialogue,” Linehan said.

The coronavirus pandemic forced Strafford to change the way it does business, and it’s not all been bad. This year, twice as many people as usual were expected to vote, but instead they would do so by Australian ballot.

Australian balloting gives “more people a chance to participate,” she said.

The front door to Pomfret Town Hall, built by the Unitarian Church in 1845, was locked Tuesday. Like Strafford, Pomfret called off this year’s traditional Town Meeting due to COVID-19.

“A lot is lost, but I guess it’s how they have to do it this year,” said Doug Tuthill, who has made it a habit over the years to take Town Meeting Day off from work.

Tuthill, a roofer, prefers that town and school business be conducted on the floor, where “you can express yourself and ask questions.”

Tuthill, 60, was not shy about doing either. “I believe in open debate,” he said. “Every once in a while you can change people’s minds by offering them a different point of view. Not a lot of people, but some.”

This year, however, Tuthill, who served on the Selectboard about 10 years ago, had to settle for dropping off his ballot across the road from Town Hall at the town office building. By noon Tuesday, 414 (53%) of the town’s 783 registered voters had cast Australian ballots.

There was a benefit to waiting until Tuesday to cast a ballot or hand one in. Pomfet Town Clerk Becky Fielder and her poll workers were offering free doughnuts to everyone who came through the door.

“Town Meeting is a good tradition,” said Dottie Deans, who came with a ballot and left with a doughnut. “I always enjoy seeing people who I haven’t seen in a while.”

Roughly 60 of Vermont’s 246 municipalities, including Hartland and Barnard, chose to postpone Town Meeting Day until spring. Some towns are hoping that warmer weather and the potential easing of COVID-19 restrictions will allow them to make Town Meeting into an outdoor event.

In Thetford, some residents preferred delaying Town Meeting until May to give voters an opportunity to further scrutinize the proposed $1.6 million town budget.

But the Selectboard preferred to use Australian ballot voting on Tuesday for articles that ordinarily would be debated during an in-person Town Meeting.

In a letter to the Valley News’ Forum last week, Masland was among 10 residents who endorsed voting down the proposed town budget to “allow time to consult with all constituencies before finalizing the budget.”

In an interview Monday, Masland expanded on his argument for delaying Town Meeting until more people could weigh in. “Vermonters are very adamant about having local control,” he said. “In truth, the only time that people have local control is at a deliberative Town Meeting. The voters there make the decisions.

“The rest of the year, it’s the Selectboard and School Board making the decisions.”

For Delsie Hoyt, who chairs the West Fairlee Selectboard, Town Meeting isn’t just a time to debate big-ticket items. Even before the pandemic, West Fairlee voted on its town budget and elected officers by Australian balloting.

But on the Saturday before voting, residents would gather in the West Fairlee Community Building. A popular feature of the meeting was “other business,” where residents could bring up whatever was on their minds.

“Where are we on broadband?” was at the top of the list in recent years.

“It’s important information for people to know,” Hoyt said.

Town Meeting Day deliberations need to return ASAP, if for no other reason than there’s no telling what can happen when a bunch of a town’s residents gather to decide how to spend their tax dollars.

Clyde Jenne, who was Hartland’s town clerk for nearly 27 years before retiring last fall, recalled a Town Meeting that attracted more folks than usual to century-old Damon Hall.

For fire safety reasons, Damon Hall’s maximum capacity is about 150 people. A question came up about whether this particular Town Meeting crowd had exceeded the limit.

“Why don’t you ask the fire chief?” someone shouted. “He’s here.”

The meeting went on.

“I think we were voting on a new fire truck that year,” Jenne said.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

Correction

Both Thetford Selectboard member Sharon Harkay, who was re-elected on Tuesday, and challenger Orin Pacht were on the ballot. An earlier photo caption with this story incorrectly described the nature of Pacht's campaign.




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