Several municipalities, assisted by new legislation signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott, have made plans to alter the upcoming floor and town meetings, in anticipation of the pandemic continuing into March.
The Legislature created a law in December that allows the legislative body of a municipality to move all the business to Australian ballot even if it was something like approving a budget that had been traditionally done from the floor. Legislation signed by Scott on Tuesday allows municipalities to mail a ballot to all voters and the legislative body to change the date of the meeting.
Postponing the meeting could serve two functions, moving it to a date when the pandemic may be less active or giving the municipality’s leaders more time to create a plan that will allow the necessary business of the town to go on with voter approval without exposing people to COVID by bringing together a crowd in an enclosed space.
As of Wednesday, there have been more than 400,000 deaths attributed to coronavirus in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Will Senning, director of elections and campaign finance for the Vermont Secretary of State’s office, said his office only provides municipalities with guidance and during a “standard” year, and may not hear from some towns at all about their elections. But on this unusual year, he said, he had heard anecdotally of interest in moving all questions to Australian ballot and changing the date but said he had heard less talk of mailing ballots to all voters but he said that might be because the law was only signed as of Tuesday.
Floor meetings, sometimes called informational meetings, can take place remotely this year but not the actual town meeting because votes can only be cast in-person from the floor or by ballot.
Kari Clark, town clerk for Rutland Town, said there had been a pre-town meeting this week remotely.
“That gave everyone the opportunity to join publicly and raise concerns regarding our budgets,” she said.
The meeting, which included the town and the school and which Clark estimated was attended by more than 20 people, went “really well,” Clark said. A similar remote meeting is planned before Town Meeting Day.
The pre-town meeting happens annually in Rutland Town so Clark said only the format was new for 2021.
In Castleton, the floor meeting will take place the Wednesday before voting, instead of the night before voting, according to Nedra Boutwell, the town clerk. PEG-TV will record it and people will be able to see it days before residents are asked to cast their votes.
Helen McKinlay, town clerk in Pittsford, said like the Rutland Town, Pittsford will do their town meeting remotely. The budgets and appropriations are usually voted from the floor, among other things, but all items must now be voted by Australian ballot on the traditional Tuesday town meeting date for those voters who don’t mail in or drop off their ballots in advance.
McKinlay said she would speak with Select Board members at their Jan. 20 meeting about whether eligible residents will need to request ballots or whether the town will mail out ballots to every registered voter.
Barre City Clerk Carol Dawes was invited to speak with the Legislature about how to best address the issue. During their more recent meetings, before the session got started, Dawes, chairwoman of the legislative committee for the Vermont Municipal Clerks and Treasurers Association, was joined by representatives from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VCLT) and the secretary of state’s office.
“We talked about what the most immediate needs were for town meeting. We talked about, what are the things that would be the least controversial, the easiest to get passed, and I think H.48 (which Scott signed on Tuesday) does exactly that,” she said.
Dawes said she believed the legislators and those who came to provide advice were on the same page.
“One of he most important things that everyone agreed on is this kind of thing is not ‘one size fits all.’ The most important thing was to leave the flexibility in the bill to have it be enabling language but not mandated,” she said.
Dawes said Barre City would work with Barre Town and the school district to get ballots to everyone so residents of the city or town who share a school district, would not find half were getting ballots and half were not.
Barre City does not do any voting from the floor, so Dawes said there was no need for changes there.
Karen Horn, director of public policy and advocacy for the VCLT, said their organization was “getting hundreds of calls.”
“Our municipal assistance center is definitely almost underwater in terms of calls about town meeting,” she said.
A section on their website, vlct.org, has been frequently updated to include information that’s current and accurate so Horn said that might be a good place to people to start if they have questions.
Residents with questions would probably be better off calling the secretary of state’s office as VLCT can only assist municipal officials.
Horn pointed out that Scott’s office had sent out guidance, also on Tuesday, that would make it complicated to have an in-person floor meeting for reasons such as the size of the room needed and the requirements around masking and social distancing.
“A lot of towns have decided to put everything on the Australian ballot for this year only, and they’re doing it with a little bit of regret because you hate to lose that discussion from the floor,” Horn said.
Senning said he had not heard from any Vermonters yet with this particular concern but said he wouldn’t be surprised, as town meeting nears, to hear some might recognize the need to be safe because of the pandemic but still be unhappy about changing, even for a year, the tradition of the annual event.