Panton will meet, vote on changes to town meeting

PANTON — Panton residents are being asked to gather this coming Monday to make a series of decisions that could create major changes in how the town takes care of its annual business in March.
Panton’s selectboard has called a special town meeting at Panton Town Hall for 7 p.m. on Monday, July 23, to consider moving the date of its annual town meeting and changing the way residents choose town leaders and decide on town spending measures.
The selectboard is recommending a move from floor votes at the annual Tuesday morning meeting to day-long Australian balloting on Town Meeting Day.
The board is proposing those measures in response to low turnout. This past March at Panton’s annual town meeting 23 voters, about 4.7 percent of Panton’s checklist, decided not only on roughly $1.36 million of spending, but also elected a moderator and chose to pursue certain renovations to Panton Town Hall in a series of close floor votes.
In Addison County only six towns — Panton, Bridport, Hancock, Orwell, Granville and Whiting — still hold annual town meetings on Town Meeting Day, the first Tuesday in March. Most towns choose that Monday evening, or like Ferrisburgh and Monkton in recent years have switched to Saturday mornings.
Panton Selectboard Chairman Howard Hall said the three-member Panton board is recommending for residents’ consideration a switch to Monday evening meetings. To give future Panton selectboards flexibility the article does not specify an exact time, but Hall said the consensus of the current board would be 6:30 p.m.
“It would be an evening meeting,” he said. “We would have it on the Monday night at 6:30, or really at a time to be determined by the board. But we’re thinking 6:30 is a reasonable hour.”
Many people find it increasingly difficult to get time off work for weekday morning meetings, Hall said, and in general now even in rural towns like Panton most people commute to work elsewhere, unlike historically when many Vermont residents were self-employed farmers.
“There are a few residents I know personally … They go, ‘I’ve lived in this town for probably 15 years and I’ve been to two town meetings,’” Hall said. “And they would actually like to vote on some of these things, on how their tax dollars are spent, or who’s being elected, or how things are happening.”
Hall added that many residents who work, plus those who are disabled or lack easy access to transportation, could have a say in town government and spending by using absentee ballots.
At the same time the board hopes to increase attendance at the meetings for discussion purposes, however, it is also recommending changes that would remove decision making from the annual town meeting.
The second motion to be discussed at Monday’s special town meeting asks, “Shall the Town of Panton elect its town officers by Australian ballot?”
That measure would mean no longer would town officers, including candidates for the selectboard and Addison Northwest School District board, be nominated from the floor of Panton’s town meeting.
Instead, those interested in the positions would have to file petitions signed by at least 5 percent of Panton’s voter checklist — currently that would mean 25 voters — in order to appear on the Town Meeting Day ballot.
Hall said selectboard members believe this process would help avoid residents making snap decisions to run without fully thinking over the implications of serving on boards.
“It’s a lot more than just meeting twice a month,” he said. “I got an email yesterday at about 9:30 from somebody saying there’s blue-green algae at the town beach. What are we going to do about it? I got another phone call later at 2:30 in the afternoon saying my neighbor’s grass is high. What do I do about that?”
In some cases in the past in Panton people have even been nominated without their knowledge, Hall said.
“I’ve talked to people where they weren’t even at the town meeting, and all of a sudden they’re on the school board,” he said.
The final article to be considered on Monday night at Panton Town Hall is financial: “Shall the Town of Panton adopt all budget articles by Australian ballot?”
Hall said the single largest factor in the selectboard’s recommendation for this change is that board members do not like such a small percentage of residents weighing in on town spending.
“I don’t really care how things unfold. All I care is that we have good representation of what the people want to do,” Hall said. “And less than 5 percent of the actual voters is not actually a great representation, and you can’t say it’s a mandate from the people if you have 23 people decide where over $1 million of money goes. That’s pretty troubling in my eyes. There should be a lot more people in town that actually have a voice.”
Hall was asked how the board felt about residents losing the ability to directly amend budgets from the floor of town meeting. He answered they have many opportunities throughout the budgeting process to make their thoughts known, at or outside of regular meetings.
“We as the selectboard announced multiple times we were having budget hearings about items. We announced them via email. We announced them on Front Porch Forum. ‘Come to the selectboard meeting. We’re looking for input. We’re looking for your advice and opinions,’” he said, adding, “You can input via email. You can input by phone call. You can input by coming to the meeting … I don’t care how it happens, but I think they (residents) should have the ability to vote on it. That’s really the important thing.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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