Vt. lawmakers, municipalities scramble to organize COVID Town Meeting Day

Published: Jan. 13, 2021 at 5:40 PM EST
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STARKSBORO, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont lawmakers have approved a bill giving municipalities several options for how to hold Town Meeting Day amidst the pandemic.

The community of Starksboro carries out the age-old tradition of New England democracy inside the local elementary school. Some items are decided by Australian ballot, but others are debated on the floor and voted by voice or paper ballot.

That might not be possible in a pandemic, so lawmakers and towns are rushing to finalize plans for how to pull it off safely.

A bill on its way to the governor gives towns several options for how to hold meetings and conduct votes on municipal and school budgets.

Starksboro Assistant Town Clerk Amy McCormick says they’re sticking with their meeting date of February 27th and will hold a virtual meeting. “It’ll be an informational meeting versus an actual hands-on vote on the floor, and we’ll vote on March 2nd,” she said. McCormick says they’ll hold a mix of in-person, mail-in absentee on that day.

That means no gathering inside the town hall for traditional floor discussions. “It’ll be different -- ‘Well, how am I going to do that? I don’t have a computer.’ ‘Well, you can log in by phone.’ It’ll be a challenge for all of us,” McCormick said.

In Montpelier, where all municipal votes are already done by Australian ballot, City Clerk John Odum is opting to replicate the November election and is sending every voter a ballot. It will cost the city $12,000 although the state is making $2 million in federal dollars available to help communities cover expenses.

“We’ll be open on Town Meeting Day for folks to walk in. We’re going to use the dropbox out back and we’re going to mail it out to each voter,” Odum said.

The new bill also gives towns the option to push back their town meetings to when more people are vaccinated and Vermont’s caseloads are lower. But push it too far back and it could have negative consequences on the school tax rate. “And if they don’t have a budget passed by a certain time then there are penalties. We need to trust them to know what to do,” said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham County.

As Town Meeting Day approaches, time isn’t on town clerks’ sides. Odum, McCormick, and others have but a few weeks to get everything in line before meetings are warned. “The commitment is not to change Town Meeting Day, to get those ballots out by mail. It’s going to be a real crunch. We were in uncharted territory in November. We’re back in unknown territory again,” Odum said.

Traditional Town Meeting Day is March 2nd.

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