Vermont Legislature looks toward another pandemic-altered town meeting season

Published: 12/15/2021 9:38:17 PM
Modified: 12/15/2021 9:37:43 PM

The Vermont Legislature is set to consider allowing the state’s 246 municipalities to replace March 2022 town meetings with COVID-19-safe voting or warm-weather gatherings. Some 80% of communities used a one-year-only state law last winter to temporarily replace shoulder-to-shoulder decision-making with secret mail ballots. Most of the rest tapped the same legislation to reschedule proceedings until meeting attendees could open windows or move outdoors in the spring.

Cities and towns had hoped to return to in-person gatherings on or around the traditional first Tuesday in March of this coming year, only to see Vermont’s coronavirus cases hit record highs this month, even before the arrival of the highly transmissible omicron variant.

As a result, legislative leaders are drafting another temporary bill of electoral alternatives they hope will be the first measure passed when the Legislature convenes next month.

“We thought we should give towns options,” said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, the bill’s sponsor and chair of her chamber’s Government Operations Committee. “I’m hoping we’ll get it passed and signed by the second week.”

White is proposing another one-year-only plan to allow municipalities to replace 2022 annual meetings with Australian secret balloting or reschedule them “to a potentially safer date later in the year.”

“The citizens of Vermont should be able to protect their health, safety and welfare,” the draft bill states, “while also continuing to exercise their right to participate in annual municipal meetings.”

The bill would permit online public information hearings but mostly prohibit official town meetings on video conferencing platforms — the latter out of concern that organizers don’t have the ability to open participation to all locals, yet close it to outsiders who aren’t eligible to vote.

(Brattleboro is the only locality the state has been allowed to debate and make decisions electronically, as its one-of-a-kind meeting of elected representatives is the only one that can limit Zoom participation to official members and let everyone else watch on public access television.)

The proposed 2022 changes aren’t expected to affect Vermont’s 28 cities and towns with 5,000 or more people, as they use Australian ballots for their annual votes for local leaders, spending and special articles. Most of the 218 communities with smaller populations traditionally hold some sort of town meeting, which must be warned at least 30 days in advance — this coming Jan. 30 for those seeking to take municipal action on Tuesday, March 1, 2022.

Last winter, a majority of towns and villages heeded a state recommendation that “meetings are strongly discouraged” and traded sugaring-season debate for mailable ballots or outdoor gatherings in April, May and June.

Only five communities — Addison, Kirby, Norton, Stratton and Woodford — held in-person meetings, with each having little on the agenda or being gaveled in solely to adjourn to a later date.

Lawmakers have drafted the latest bill with the help of the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, a municipal support organization.

“With the uncertainty of omicron, a ton of local officials are asking what are they going to be allowed to do for town meeting 2022,” said Karen Horn, the league’s director of public policy and advocacy. “They’re going to have to warn meetings in the not-too-distant future, so it would be helpful to have this passed quickly to give everyone certainty about what’s going to happen.”

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