BY KEVIN O’CONNOR/VT DIGGER
The Vermont Legislature is considering whether to allow continued pandemic-era flexibility in how and when the state’s 247 cities and towns decide local leaders, spending and special articles.
Lawmakers passed several bills in the past two years letting communities make short-term, Covid-safe changes to Town Meeting — traditionally held on or around the first Tuesday in March — and to gather municipal governing boards solely online.
“The citizens of Vermont should be able to protect their health, safety, and welfare,” each bill said, “while also continuing to exercise their right to participate in annual municipal meetings.”
Some 80% of communities in 2021 and almost 75% in 2022 used the temporary laws to replace shoulder-to-shoulder decision making with mailable ballots, while most of the rest tapped the legislation to reschedule proceedings until residents could open windows or move outdoors in warmer weather.
This week, the House Government Operations Committee is set to consider a bill modeled on the last biennial session’s Act 1 to continue the options of switching from floor voting to ballots, rescheduling Town Meetings to a later date, and holding public information sessions online.
“I have been working with stakeholders to address a temporary extension of some of the provisions,” said the committee’s newly named chair, Rep. Michael McCarthy, a Democrat from St. Albans.
The Vermont League of Cities and Towns municipal support organization has heard from a rising number of selectboards wanting Covid options to continue another year, it noted in a recent legislative report.
The move isn’t expected to affect Vermont’s 28 cities and towns with 5,000 or more people, as they annually vote on local leaders and spending using ballots. But most of the 219 communities with smaller populations traditionally hold some sort of Town Meeting, which must be warned at least 30 days in advance — or by Feb. 5 this year for those seeking to take municipal action on the traditional first Tuesday in March.
Covid-19 struck Vermont a week after Town Meeting Day in 2020. As the pandemic continued in 2021, only five communities gathered in person, with each having little on the agenda or gaveling in for the sole purpose of adjourning to a later date. In 2022, the figure rose to about 40 — or 15% of the state’s cities and towns.
The number could increase this year if communities follow the example of Brattleboro, whose local leaders just voted to return to an in-person Town Meeting after a three-year absence.
Brattleboro is the only municipality in the state allowed to hold an annual Town Meeting electronically, as its unique gathering of elected representatives is the sole one that can limit online participation to official members and let everyone else watch on public access television. But that has resulted in recent sessions as long as 15 hours over two days.
“Much as I like sitting at home for Town Meeting and being able to get up and go to the refrigerator anytime I want,” Brattleboro physician Franz Reichsman told the selectboard this month, “I do think there’s real utility in having an in-person meeting and avoiding the prolongation of what has already become a difficult and lengthy procedure.”
As for health concerns, the doctor quipped “do we really want to interfere with the centuries-long tradition of Vermonters giving each other viral illnesses at Town Meeting?” before noting that, “as people have gotten vaccinated and had previous infections, the virulence of the virus has gotten considerably less.”
Statewide, many people want the Legislature to permanently allow public bodies to conduct year-round business online, citing greater access, participation, safety and transparency.
Electronic sessions have allowed Vermonters to attend from anywhere and “keep quorums during inclement weather, while recovering from illness, or simply when childcare and eldercare duties prevented in-person attendance,” the League of Cities and Towns noted in its legislative report.
The chairs of the House and Senate Government Operations committee are set to explore such options.
Said McCarthy: “We plan to have a broader discussion this biennium, with an inclusive and more extended process to address the long-term issues.”
And Sen. Ruth Hardy, a Democrat from Addison County, said: “These are temporary provisions, which will be followed by a longer discussion of whether more permanent action is necessary.”