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Bingham asks for ballot voting on town budget

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard has been asked to pave the way for future municipal budgets to be voted by Australian ballot instead of at the annual town meeting. The request comes just a few weeks after local residents agreed to enact the same voting change for their elementary school spending plan.
The request for the new method of voting for the municipal budget comes from former Middlebury Selectman Craig Bingham. In an April 17 email to selectboard Chairman Dean George and Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay, Bingham pointed to a provision in the town charter that he believed would allow the board to make the change on its own, rather than await a citizens’ petition to force such a switch.
That provision states: “The selectmen may cause any question to be voted by Australian ballot at any annual meeting or at any special town meeting called on their motion or by petition, provided that the warning for such meeting specifies the questions to be voted.”
But Ramsay on Tuesday received a legal opinion indicating a change to ballot voting on the municipal budget would require a public vote at a special meeting, or at the annual town meeting. She acknowledged the selectboard could schedule a special meeting to decide the question, or warn the measure as an article for the 2016 town meeting next March. Otherwise, supporters would have to gather signatures from at least 5 percent of the registered voters to force a special meeting for a vote on the Australian ballot initiative.
Unsurprisingly, Bingham, himself a lawyer, reads the law differently.
“I disagree with the town attorney’s opinion as to which state statute controls,” he said. “In my opinion, the town charter, which was drafted and approved by the voters, and consented to by the Legislature is dispositive. However, I will ask the board if they will include the question on the warning for the next town meeting on their own motion.”
Bingham said he is motivated out of a desire to increase opportunities for residents to vote on a municipal budget that has grown to almost $10 million. A crowd of around 200 people at the March 2 annual town meeting OK’d a 2015-2016 municipal budget of $9,949,155 by voice vote, after more than an hour of presentations and debate.
“I was unable to attend town meeting this year because of work,” Bingham said during a phone interview on Monday. “It was the first time in 20 years that I was not able to vote on the budget.”
And Bingham said he is far from alone. Middlebury has roughly 4,500 registered voters. The annual gathering at the Middlebury municipal gym can only accommodate a small percentage of eligible voters, he said. And while voting from the floor allows for the spending plan to be discussed and amended, it is a process that does not allow for absentee voting, Bingham noted. He reasoned that deciding the budget by ballots would allow more people to vote on Town Meeting Day (the first Tuesday in March) and also provide the option for absentee voting.
“Two hundred is a relative handful out of 4,500,” Bingham said of limitations of the town meeting-style vote.
That same argument was made by those who petitioned to have the Mary Hogan Elementary School budget voted by Australian ballot. The petitioners noted that only a few dozen people have been deciding an annual school budget that this year was pitched at $6,775,965. The ID-4 school board agreed to place articles on its April 8 annual meeting warning proposing a switch to Australian ballots and to have the annual meeting switched from the second Wednesday in April to Town Meeting Day. A crowd of approximately 150 people resoundingly adopted the proposed 2015-2016 budget and the meeting/voting changes.
Opponents of the change to ballots for the ID-4 budget voiced concerns that residents would lose the opportunity to discuss, and change, the spending plan prior to voting. They also argued that having a Town Meeting Day vote by Australian ballot would give residents little incentive to attend the informational meeting to network with the school board and Mary Hogan Elementary administration.
George was a proponent of the switch to Australian ballots for the Mary Hogan Elementary budget. He supports the idea of the selectboard discussing such a switch for the municipal budget, but he personally does not think such a move is necessary at this time. He believes Middlebury has been attracting a solid number of people to its annual town meeting, where he said more is often at stake than just the town budget. The floor action, George added, also gives people an opportunity to question the leaders of nonprofits who receive municipal funding.
“Town meeting is such an important tradition in Vermont, my fear is that if we put the town budget on for Australian ballot, I think it would essentially eliminate an effective town meeting process,” George said. “My thinking too is if town meeting weren’t attended by the usual 200 people, if it had a very, very small attendance, and the budget was being voted on by a very small number of people, then I would think that maybe doing something different like the Australian ballot for the budget would be more important.”
Bingham’s request and its legal implications will be included in support materials for the board’s next meeting, on Tuesday, April 28. Ramsay was unsure as the Addison Independent went to press whether the selectboard on April 28 would consider waiving the petitioning process and schedule a special meeting to decide the Australian ballot issue.
Other selectboard members offered their views on Bingham’s request.
“It’s natural for people to turn towards our town meeting process after the ID-4 vote,” Selectwoman Susan Shashok said. “I happen to really like our town meeting floor vote and supported ID-4 keeping theirs, but times do change. It benefits all of us to fully explore and not assume whether a ballot or floor vote works better for Middlebury going forward.”
Selectman Nick Artim said he, too, welcomes a discussion on the merits and drawbacks of ballot voting on the town budget.
“It’s healthy for us to have the discussion to understand was the pluses and minuses are,” he said. “If (ballots) enhance democracy, I think it would be a plus.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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