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Middlebury plans survey on proposed change in town budet vote

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard wants to get community feedback before deciding whether to have a referendum on deciding future municipal budgets by Australian ballot.
It was a few weeks ago that former Selectman Craig Bingham asked the selectboard to consider a switch to Australian ballot for deciding the town budget. That spending plan has historically been decided from the floor at the annual gathering on the first Monday in March. That meeting draws an average of around 200 people out of Middlebury’s total checklist of 4,671 registered voters.
Bingham believes a shift to Australian ballot voting would allow more people to weigh in on the municipal budget, which is now in the $10 million range. He said he was unable to attend this past town meeting due to a work conflict and noted the current voting process does not provide an absentee voting option.
It was last month that Middlebury residents elected to vote future Mary Hogan Elementary School budgets by Australian ballot. That referendum, fielded at the ID-4 school district annual meeting, was spurred by a citizen petition.
Middlebury selectboard members on Tuesday discussed their options in dealing with the Bingham request. Those options, according to board Chairman Dean George, included maintaining the status quo, supporting a referendum for next year’s town meeting, and developing a community survey on the topic.
Board members ultimately agreed to offer a survey — either online or at the 2016 town meeting — to get feedback on the Australian ballot request, and to bring the topic up for discussion at the 2016 meeting. That feedback, officials reasoned, should give them a sense of whether voters would want to be asked at a subsequent town meeting whether they’d like to vote future municipal budgets by Australian ballot.
Individual board members got the ball rolling on Tuesday by sharing their opinions on Australian ballots.
Selectwoman Donna Donahue said a shift to ballots would give residents less incentive to attend the annual meeting.
“It could be a death knell for town meeting,” she said.
Selectwoman Laura Asermily noted the current town meeting format allows residents to propose amendments to the spending plan from the floor.
“I really hope we won’t go to Australian ballot voting on the town budget,” Asermily said, “but I respect what the community wants.”
George counted himself among those not wanting to see a switch, underscoring the discussion opportunities and the ability to change the budget on the fly. He added he was pleased that town meeting participants this past March got to hear ID-4 school board Chair Ruth Hardy give an overview of the 2015-2016 Mary Hogan School budget proposal. Selectwoman Susan Shashok suggested extending invitations to UD-3 school district and Patricia Hannaford Career Center officials to do the same at future town meetings.
Selectman Gary Baker said Australian ballot supporters have recourse if they are not happy with the board’s stance on the issue.
“If they want to change it, let them petition it,” he said.
A petition would need to bear the names of at least 5 percent of the registered voters’ signatures.
George and Baker had been among the supporters for switching to ballots for the Mary Hogan School budget. But they have argued that the annual town meeting has drawn a more representative sample of the electorate. Recent ID-4 annual meetings had been drawing an average of a few dozen people.
Middlebury resident Ross Conrad told the board he hopes to never see a petition submitted. Referring to himself light-heartedly as a “flatlander” from New York, Conrad called Vermont’s town meeting form of governance “the last bastion of true Democracy on the planet, almost.”
He called a switch to ballots “a terrible idea,” suggesting the town instead look at alternatives for boosting attendance at the annual meeting — such as having a community dinner on the same evening.
Bingham could not be reached for comment as the Addison Independent went to press on Wednesday.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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