By CYRUS LEVESQUE
NEW HAVEN — A battle over what some believe could fundamentally change a Vermont tradition — the annual town meeting — raged in New Haven last week as citizens there voted for the third time in a little more than a year on how they will consider future spending questions.
At a special town meeting on May 25, New Haven voted to continue voting on the general fund budget, the road budget and all other monetary items by Australian ballot. That result, by a tally of 43-58 paper ballots, overturned an article approved on Town Meeting Day in March that reinstituted the tradition of a voice vote for budget issues.
For about 25 years, New Haven has voted on the school budget by Australian ballot. And at a special town meeting in May 2005 New Haven voted to use Australian ballot to decide all budget issues. However, supporters of the floor vote got the issue on the ballot for Town Meeting Day 2006 and this time voters chose to use a voice vote.
But those who supported the Australian ballot circulated a petition to reconsider the decision made at the most recent town meeting. So the decision was reconsidered at last Thursday’s special town meeting, which took place at the town hall.
Oddly enough, there was a voting irregularity at last week‘s. Poll workers checked off only 98 people as registered to vote, but 101 votes were counted. However, the winning margin was so great — 15 votes — that no one disputed the result.
One of the major reasons in favor of Australian ballot cited at Thursday’s meeting was the difficulty some residents have in staying for the entire town meeting, or attending it in the first place. New Haven’s March town meetings have run late into the night in some cases. People with commitments to family or work are often unable to attend the meeting, Australian ballot supporters said.
And a night meeting in the winter can be hard for some to attend. Several people complained about the difficulty, especially for senior citizens, of driving on bad roads late at night. So for those people, voting by Australian ballot would be preferred because it would only take a few minutes at almost any time during the day.
Others felt that the anonymity provided by an Australian ballot was important. One man at the May 25 meeting argued that voting by voice or hand count could discourage people from expressing their views on an issue. “People are intimidated by that,” he said.
However, supporters of using voice vote argued that voting by Australian ballot would limit the input of voters.
New Haven town moderator Lanny Smith opposed the use of Australian ballot. “I agree with the sentiment that it will destroy town meeting,” he said after Thursday’s meeting. “I believe in town meeting. I believe in democracy.”
Smith said that several other Vermont towns have instituted Australian ballot voting, and the turnout at their town meetings has fallen.
Others said the important part of town meeting is the chance to exchange ideas and make amendments to the items on which people are voting, which would be impossible through an Australian ballot.
“What’s happening with the budget is people are spending my money, and I think it’s really important to have the opportunity to tweak it,” one resident said at the meeting.