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Will town meetings be held in person?

FORMER MIDDLEBURY TOWN Moderator James Douglas and current Moderator Susan Shashok are enlisting the public’s help in saving the eroding institution of town meeting, which in 2021 was sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY — The annual March town meeting in Vermont.

It’s perhaps the purest form of grassroots democracy the nation has to offer, and it’s been an institution in the Green Mountain State for more than two-and-a-half centuries.

It’s a yearly forum in which native farmers and white-collar transplants have rubbed shoulders for at least one evening in town halls from Newport to Brattleboro, rendering weighty decisions ranging from municipal spending to honoring community volunteers.

Susan Shashok still recalls her first Middlebury town meeting following her family’s move from the Philadelphia area several years ago. She was pleasantly floored by the passionate voter exchanges that led to community actions, all under the deft guidance of then-Moderator (and former Vermont governor) Jim Douglas.

Shashok was so taken with the institution of town meeting that she ran (unopposed) for town moderator when Douglas retired from the role in 2019 after 33 years. She’s drafted a helpful town meeting primer for Middlebury residents. But while she inherited the gavel from Douglas two years ago, Shashok has only presided over one town meeting — in March 2020, before the coronavirus took hold in Vermont.

“I’m like a one-hit wonder,” she joked.

“All the talk then was, ‘By this time next year (in 2021), everyone will be vaccinated, it’ll be fine,” Shashok recalled.

It wasn’t — and isn’t — as 2021 was a non-stop COVID-19 rollercoaster ride.

Most Vermont communities this past March either cancelled their town meetings or held them virtually, for informational purposes, with key issues decided at the ballot box on March 2.

While the COVID-19 shot and booster are widely available in the Green Mountain State — which has a more than 80% vaccination rate — the delta and omicron mutations of the virus have caused a massive surge in cases following what had been an encouraging summer.

With at least 200 new COVID-19 cases each day in Vermont — and sometimes more than 1,000 a day — municipal officials are again sizing up the prospect of in-person town meetings. It’s a decision they must make by late January in order to meet town meeting warning deadlines.

ANOTHER COVID THREAT?

Shashok and Douglas are among those waiting with trepidation, fearing another cancelled March town meeting could catalyze a rapid unraveling of a cherished form of democracy that has already taken a few gut punches during the past 50 years.

Shashok realizes officials must err on the side of caution when it comes to weighing a return to in-person town meetings during the COVID era. But at the same time, she believes town meeting is on life support, and she doesn’t want the coronavirus to drive the final nail in its coffin.

A vote to cancel town meeting is also “a vote for having less democracy in action,” Shashok lamented. “It feels safer, but we’re losing every time we try to be safe.”

She and Douglas recently sat down with the Independent to share their concerns about the long- and short-term future of town meeting. They said they’re both willing to testify before the Legislature on any initiatives to preserve town meeting and make it more user-friendly.

Douglas, while serving as Vermont’s secretary of state from 1980-1992, helped train new town moderators while keeping the more senior ones up to speed on town meeting trends and protocols.

He enjoyed his efforts to sow democracy at the grassroots level so much that he ran for Middlebury town moderator in 1986 when incumbent Chet Ketcham stepped down. Douglas continues to serve as moderator for the Addison Central School District.

“I thought, ‘I’m pontificating about how moderators should behave, perhaps I should be one,’” he joked.

In so doing, he became part of a Vermont tradition dating back to 1762, when Bennington convened its first official town meeting. It caught on in towns throughout the state. Communities initially convened multiple town meetings per week, then confined it to weekly, monthly, and now just the one annual gathering.

“(Residents) realized that municipalities, as they matured, required people to make decisions between meetings, so they ‘selected men’ to fulfill that responsibility,” Douglas said. “Municipal government grew from that point forward.”

The term “selected men” eventually became “selectmen.” Most communities have since dropped “men” from the moniker to acknowledge all genders may serve.

Meeting attendance has ebbed and flowed over the decades, Douglas remarked. Municipal archives reveal a surge in participation during the Depression, followed by a steady, gradual decline. He attributed the decline to several factors, including more dual working families, a greater menu of obligations and diversions, and the arrival of the Australian ballot voting system in Vermont during the late-1890s.

Some folks take a pass on town meeting if they believe the community is well run and budget increases are kept low.

BOOSTING ATTENDANCE?

Both Shashok and Douglas reasoned that if town meeting is to survive it has to be made more convenient to voters. They continue to brainstorm ideas to make that happen.

Among them: Use technology to allow people to participate remotely as well as in person. There are social media platforms like Zoom that allow multiple people to congregate virtually. But there’s still the problem of limiting admittance to registered voters.

Shashok doesn’t see that as being insurmountable.

“There’s software out there that could be created and maybe we should be looking at that,” she said, adding people responsible for monitoring voter checklists could also become the Zoom gatekeepers.

And while Vermont’s climate can be inhospitable in March, Shashok said it might be time to switch town meeting to a warmer month in order to allow for greater social distancing.

“Maybe in late May we could meet on the bleachers somewhere and still have that sense of community that comes from town meeting,” she said.

Douglas suggested more towns could emulate Brattleboro’s “representative town meeting” format, established in 1960. In Brattleboro, only elected representatives vote at the representative town meeting, held on the third Saturday after the first Tuesday in March.

Whatever the solution(s), Shashok and Douglas said they must be worked out soon.

“For me, we have to look at it differently, and not just say, ‘Let’s put it off for another year,’” Shashok said. “We need to look at how the young people are interacting … It’s far easier to tune into a meeting, state your piece and then get out, than to drive to the location, sit there the whole meeting, and have your moment.

“I don’t want to let that direct democracy go away, and I don’t think most people want that either,” she added. “There are things we can do, and I think we should start talking about it.”

The current alternative of Australian ballot voting doesn’t appeal to town meeting purists. They argue it’s much easier to resolve a budget disagreement on the town meeting floor, rather than see the spending plan defeated by Australian ballot and then have to be reworked for a future, follow-up vote.

Australian ballots and online meetings can also take elected officials out of the spotlight.

“It might be more comforting to local officials to have virtual meetings because they aren’t on the firing line, in person, with constituents who might feel unhappy about something,” Douglas said. “But that’s what democracy and accountability are all about. And that’s our tradition of many centuries. So I think it would be a shame to lose that and I hope we can find a way to get to ‘yes,’ rather than quickly say ‘no.’”

True to their elected positions, Middlebury’s current town and school district moderators are hoping to promote constructive dialogue among local voters about how to keep town meeting going. The most recent Middlebury town meeting is already almost two years in the rearview mirror — and fading fast.

“People are forgetting what (town meeting) feels like, and I don’t want them to forget,” Shashok said.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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