Just hours after the 2022 legislative session got under way Tuesday, the Senate Government Operations Committee speedily approved its first bill: a measure that clarifies the rules for another pandemic-era Town Meeting Day.
The preliminary approval didn’t happen a moment too soon for town officials, many of whom have procedural deadlines this month for the town elections held annually in March.
With a daily COVID-19 case count that hit 1,727 on Tuesday, many of those officials are relying on guidance from lawmakers and from the Secretary of State on how to hold proceedings safely this year while adhering to the rules.
“Nobody would have predicted cases would be where they are now,” said Gwenn Zakov, the municipal policy advocate for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Zakov said the organization is on board with the rules for remote and delayed town meetings for another year. “It makes health sense, it makes logistical sense, and it’s not a huge strain on communities to make these adjustments,” she said.
Lawmakers last year passed temporary guidelines for a COVID-safe Town Meeting Day, which this year falls on March 1. Among other things, they enabled mail-in voting and gave towns permission to hold their meetings later in the year, when it would be more feasible to meet outside. They also loosened the guidelines under which towns can switch to remote voting, known in Vermont as Australian balloting, and away from the in-person debate and voting that has characterized town meeting since the 1800s.
In typical times, the town must hold an in-person vote on the question of whether to vote by Australian ballot. Under last year’s temporary rules, residents could vote on the question by Australian ballot, and selectboards or other governing bodies were authorized to make the decision.
The distinction is an important one because many feel that a move to Australian ballot effectively ends the Town Meeting Day traditions of gathering with neighbors for a same-day debate.
Hinesburg and Rockingham both misinterpreted last year’s law and voted to move permanently to Australian ballot, said Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee.
“That was never our intent,” White said Tuesday.
The bill that Senate Gov Ops passed on Tuesday, S.172, extends most of the permissions in the 2021 Town Meeting Day measure. It also makes clear that when the pandemic is over, towns must again hold a floor vote if they want to vote by Australian ballot.
Even before the pandemic, many Vermont towns had moved to Australian ballot in order to ease voting for residents who couldn't make it to the local town hall or gymnasium on Town Meeting Day.
Hinesburg has 1,700 voters, but fewer than 200 turned out to vote at the last in-person town meeting, according to selectboard chair Merrily Lovell. About 400 voted in the town’s special election on December 5 to move permanently to Australian ballot.
Lovell said Hinesburg held that election out of worries that the legislature wouldn’t act in time to allow a remote meeting in March.
“We needed to make a decision, and the legislature wasn’t being very proactive,” she said. “We didn’t want to put our residents at risk during this COVID time by insisting that they come to in-person town meeting.”
She added that she wasn’t aware the town was skirting the rules. It's unclear how the town will address the results of its recent vote.
“As far as we could understand it, we were very clearly following the law as it was written at the time,” she said. “If it’s not permanent, that’s fine with me.”
Traditional Town Meeting Day has passionate defenders. The informational meetings that towns hold before Australian balloting are nothing like the town meetings where items are amended on the floor, said Susan Clark, town moderator in Middlesex.
Selectboards run informational meetings as public hearings. “All the power is held by the selectboard, and the only thing the people are there for is to hear,” said Clark, whose moderating job would disappear if Middlesex moves to Australian ballot. “At meetings where citizens have the power to make a difference, there is better turnout.”
Lovell, too, values the traditional town meeting format.
“It’s such a good way for us to get together and converse as a community,” she said. The town had a robust discussion at last year’s town meeting, she added, which was held via Zoom. “I hope this COVID turns out to be something that guides us in ways to keep that going. It’s real democracy.”
As for the 2021 law, “I don’t know how it could have been misinterpreted, but clearly it was, even by some town attorneys,” said Sen. Brian Collamore (R-Rutland). The Senate committee plans to vote on the measure again on Wednesday, with the goal of getting it through both chambers and then to the governor's desk for a signature by next week. “That’s why we are trying to make it very clear.”