Coronaviras may change the face of town meetings

ADDISON COUNTY — Due to a new law, the COVID-19 pandemic looks like it will claim another victim in 2021 — the long-held tradition of residents gathering at annual meetings and discussing business, including in many towns debating and possibly amending town budgets and other articles.
Some Addison County towns already decide budgets by up-and-down Australian ballot voting, including Addison, Panton and Salisbury, and in Vergennes the city council sets spending. Still, in many towns, selectboards propose budgets to residents at annual town meetings and residents can adopt, reject or amend them from the floor at the gathering.
Often those spending plans pass as proposed, but not always. Several years ago, for example, the Ferrisburgh selectboard proposed to cut the town’s annual donation to the Bixby Library in Vergennes, and residents over-ruled the board and added the money back in. 
But this year due to the pandemic, Ferrisburgh has already decided to switch to Australian balloting, a move allowed by a bill passed by the Legislature that took effect on Oct. 5. 
The law basically allows towns that lack a venue that would allow residents to meet safely given COVID-19 physical distancing limitations to hold an election instead of a floor vote.
It reads, in part, “in the year 2021, any municipality may apply the Australian ballot system to any or all of its municipal meetings held in the year 2021 by vote of its legislative body.”
A Vermont League of Cities and Towns summary sent to communities noted that prior to this law, “only a vote of a municipality’s voters may allow the switch to an Australian ballot system,” and that “Municipalities whose meeting locations don’t allow for social distancing may find the switch to an Australian ballot system helpful during the ongoing pandemic.” 
The VLCT also notes the law will also apply to any special meetings called in 2021. 
Some local selectboards are already dealing with the question.
Ferrisburgh made its decision on Tuesday to go ahead with Australian balloting, with an informational meeting beforehand at a time to be determined. 
The Middlebury selectboard also this week discussed the question without reaching an immediate decision. That board will decide over the course of its next couple meetings how to proceed. 
The Bristol selectboard on Nov. 9 discussed whether to go to Australian balloting. According to draft minutes, “no decisions were made, there appeared to be consensus to have all floor meeting articles be voted on by Australian ballot … More of the brief discussion focused on how and if to include some form of informational meeting in advance, whether by Zoom only or a combination of Zoom and in-person. This will be revisited.”
Even with COVID-19 vaccines apparently on the horizon the clock is ticking on towns to make a decision. Selectboards are already deep into budget talks and must make spending plans final in time to have their towns’ annual town meeting warnings published before the end of January. And vaccines are not expected to have widespread availability before March town meetings.
In Ferrisburgh there is an extra step, creating more urgency, according to Board Chairwoman Jessica James. The town’s Board of Civil Authority has the authority to determine where elections are held, and in Ferrisburgh voting booths are traditionally set up in the back of the Ferrisburgh Central School gym during town meeting.
That site is, of course, is now out of the question, with no one except students and staff members allowed in schools. The BCA must gather and move the meeting. 
“We normally have our town meeting at the school, and the BCA has to designate the town hall as the official location, the town meeting, not the voting. So they have to have that established before we warn it,” James said. “The meeting location is the biggest issue for us for the BCA.”
Meanwhile, for residents in any community who want direct input into their towns’ spending or other issues don’t have to wait until the spending plan is warned. 
“All of our budget meetings are public,” James said.  

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