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Brandon eyes a switch to floor vote on municipal budget

BRANDON — Vermonters are often heard yearning for the past, a simpler time, they say. Now, in an effort to change the course of Brandon’s recent budget voting past, a small band of taxpayers has an intriguing idea: Bring the floor vote back to Brandon Town Meeting.
Over the last two years, the town of Brandon has spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours holding a total of seven re-votes by Australian ballot in order to pass a municipal budget. Taking that as a sign that perhaps change is needed, Lynn and John Wilson and Janet Mondlak successfully mounted a petition to revert voting on the annual town budget back to a show of hands at Brandon’s March town meeting instead of the current system of all-day voting by Australian ballot at a central polling place.
In other words, issues like town and school budgets would be discussed, debated and amended if necessary, and then voted on by voice vote or show of hands from the floor at town meeting in the first week of March. It should be noted that even if floor voting is approved, if one person requests a paper ballot at town meeting and the request supported by at least seven voters, the town clerk is required to hand out paper ballots at the meeting.
Floor voting can make for a longer evening, but the town’s business is completed that night. Petitions for re-vote within 30 days of the floor vote would still be possible, but perhaps less likely, organizers hope.
“I hate long meetings,” John Wilson said. “But I hate six months of re-votes more, and I think other people out there might think the same way.”
Mondlak said she believes many Brandon voters are tired of heading to the polls multiple times a year to vote on the budget.
“They may relish the thought,” she said. “Making a decision right then, that night and talking it out with our neighbors in a moderated session, and leave knowing there was a compromise that everyone could agree on.”
The Wilsons and Mondlak have cleared their first hurdle.
They gathered the required 5 percent of voter signatures on two separate petitions and turned them into the town office by the Sept. 22 deadline.
Two petitions to change voting on the town budget and the school budget at Town Meeting from Australian ballot back to a floor vote garnered 148 and 145 signatures, respectively. At least 140 signatures were needed on each petition in order for the articles to be considered for inclusion in the town’s Election Day warning for Nov. 4.
Brandon voters approved switching from a floor vote to Australian ballot or paper ballot voting in 1993. Like many Vermont towns, attendance at the town meeting was on the decline and the move to Australian ballot came in an effort to boost voter participation. Now, many Vermont towns use Australian ballot, with only the smallest towns, like Whiting, still voting all of their business from the floor. Other towns use a combination of floor voting and Australian ballot. Bristol and Middlebury, for instance, vote on their municipal budgets from the floor but candidates and other articles are voted by Australian ballot.
Those opposed to changing back to a floor vote say that voter participation will suffer as a result. A floor vote means the end of absentee ballots, which Brandon resident Linda Stewart said excludes residents like college students, people in the armed services and seasonal residents from the voting process.
“I’m concerned that this will disenfranchise these people,” Stewart said at last Monday night’s Brandon selectboard meeting. “I question the legality of it, and I question the morality of it.”
Board Chair Maria Ammatuna assured Stewart that the process of putting the floor vote article on the ballot was perfectly legal.
Others who oppose the initiative say that senior citizens and those who work at night may be less likely or unable to attend the town meeting in order to vote if the change to a floor vote is approved.
The Brandon selectboard was scheduled to hold a special meeting on Monday, Sept. 29, at 8 a.m. in the town hall meeting room to formally approve the town’s Election Day warning.
John Wilson said he remembers plenty of voting from the floor after he and his wife moved to Brandon years ago.
“We had town meeting and that’s where we decided things,” he said. “It’s the New England way. It’s not the Australian ballot way.”

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