Next Tuesday, people will descend on town halls and school gymnasiums across Vermont to practice the simplest form of democracy: town meeting. The 254-year-old tradition invites residents to convene and consider meat-and-potatoes questions, such as "Could the fire department be more frugal?" They also elect their contemporaries as constables, town grand jurors, fence viewers and dogcatchers.
In some years, small towns weigh in on big debates. Forty-eight Vermont municipalities voted against going to war in Iraq in 2005. Seven years later, 51 voted "yes" to amend the U.S. Constitution to undo Citizens United.
In 2016, most towns are focused on "run-of-the-mill" issues, according to Lucrecia Wonsor, the town clerk and treasurer for Killington and also president of the Vermont Municipal Clerks' and Treasurers' Association. Taxpayers will be paying particular attention to school budgets — many towns have been scrambling to keep spending increases below new thresholds that trigger financial penalties. The state legislature established those penalties last year when it passed Act 46, but it recently softened them.
There are a few unusual items, of course. Specifically, decisions about poultry practices, water fluoridation, road changes and the future locations of a prison and a power plant.
But the biggest buzz, according to Wonsor, is about the U.S. presidential primary, which coincides with Town Meeting Day.
Not too many Vermonters would have predicted their junior U.S. senator, Bernie Sanders, would be running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president. In "Bernie's" home state, a Vermont Public Radio poll conducted this month has him leading Clinton, 78 percent to 13 percent.
However, of the 11 states and one territory holding Democratic contests on Super Tuesday, only American Samoa sends fewer delegates to the National Democratic Convention than Vermont. The state gets 26, 10 of which are so-called "superdelegates" who can vote for whomever they want. Only three, including Secretary of State Jim Condos, have yet to commit to a candidate.
The last time Vermont had one of its own running for president was in 2004, when former governor Howard Dean looked like he could become the Democrat nominee. Although he had dropped out by Town Meeting Day, he still took the state, beating John Kerry 53 to 31 percent.
Condos said the number of registered voters in Vermont is climbing — a trend he expects will continue until the general election in November. It hit a record high of 461,960 in November 2012 before dropping to 421,000 last September as a result of clerks doing status checks on people who hadn't voted in a while. As of last month, the voter rolls had rebounded to 432,000.
Will Sanders inspire more Vermonters to cast ballots next Tuesday? The secretary of state's cautious assessment: "We do expect he will drive some turnout, but we don't know to what extent."
Condos noted that some towns have been requesting additional ballots from his office.
At some of Vermont's first town meetings, residents debated whether pigs should be permitted to roam free. More than two hundred years later, animal containment remains contentious. This year finds the city of Barre squawking about chickens.
Today, backyard coops must be at least 30 feet from the house of a neighbor, but there's no rule about proximity to property lines. Residents will vote whether to double the required setbacks from neighboring homes and to establish 30-foot property line setbacks.
Raising poultry seems to be increasingly popular in Barre — 17 households have the requisite licenses. But some urban dwellers aren't fans, complaining primarily about the ammonia-like smell. Fire marshal and health officer Matt Cetin said city officials are hoping to find middle ground between "pro-chicken" and "anti-chicken" factions. He observed: "As much as it's silly, it's very personal for a lot of people."
Something in the Water?
A group of Rutland City residents is accusing local officials of "drugging" people without their consent. The alleged crime: adding fluoride to the water supply to prevent tooth decay. Like many municipalities, Rutland City has done this for decades.
But a group of fluoride skeptics that includes Kathleen Krevetski, a nurse, and Jack Crowther, a retired Rutland Herald journalist, has succeeded in getting a question on the ballot to ask residents whether they want the chemical in their water. City officials have said they will heed the outcome of the vote.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the fluoridation of drinking water as one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th century. State Health Commissioner Harry Chen and local dentists have defended the practice in the opinion pages of the Rutland Herald.
Krevetski has responded with op-eds of her own, describing fluoride as a "hazardous waste product" and demanding Chen's resignation. As in the vaccination debate, mistrust of the medical establishment is fueling this one. Fluoride opponents have accused medical professionals of ignoring studies that they say link high levels of fluoride to cancer and arthritis.
After a highly publicized fight, Portland, Ore. voted against fluoridation in 2013.
Vermont isn't so sure. Burlington, which fluoridates its water, debated the pros and cons of doing so in 2005 — but the issue never made it on to the ballot. Last year, Bennington residents voted against adding fluoride to their water by a margin of 16 percent.
Four traffic lanes or three? For more than a year, that question has pitted neighbor against neighbor in Burlington's New North End.
As Seven Days has reported, some residents adamantly oppose a pilot project that would reduce a four-lane section of North Avenue to three lanes in order to make room for two bike lanes. Critics say it would slow traffic in deference to a vocal minority of cyclists.
Proponents of the pilot insist that the experiment could improve safety and is at least worth a try. Now the entire city gets to weigh in.
A "yes" vote would signal opposition to the pilot, but it's unclear whether the nonbinding vote will actually influence the fate of the pilot project. Set to begin this spring, it has already won unanimous approval of the Burlington City Council.
Is the village of Bellows Falls the right place for a jail? Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark got an earful when he proposed converting an abandoned paper mill on the river there into a 120-bed detention center and transitional housing facility for low-risk inmates.
Clark envisions a facility that would hold federal detainees, who are normally sent out of state until their trials. It would also house some state detainees and people who have served their minimum sentences but aren't eligible to leave state prison because they can't find other housing.
"This social experiment should not happen within a tiny village," resident Deborah Wright told Seven Days in a December 23 story.
The sheriff has since backed away from the Liberty Mill location, citing engineering challenges to restore the old building, but he's still scoping out other sites in the area.
Residents of Rockingham, which encompasses Bellows Falls, aren't taking any chances. A group of them got a nonbinding question on the ballot asking voters whether a detention center should be allowed in Bellows Falls. If a majority votes "no," it would send a hard-to-ignore message to Clark. At the same time, residents are separately pushing town officials to change zoning rules, making it more challenging for such a facility to ever win approval.
The silver lining? According to town manager Chip Stearns, Clark's proposal has been an "extremely high motivator for people to get involved" in local affairs, and it's invigorated the races for three open selectboard seats.
Many Vermonters wanted the state's sole nuclear power plant to shut down when it was operating. In fact, 33 towns voted to send that message to Montpelier on Town Meeting Day in 2009. But in its host town of Vernon, where residents reaped the benefits of property tax revenue and jobs, the attitude toward Vermont Yankee was always more obliging.
As those benefits dry up, Vernon is trying to adjust. So local officials have been intrigued by a proposal to build a natural gas power plant in town. Don Campbell, an investment banker and energy consultant who lives in Winhall, has reportedly been eyeing a dairy farm close to Vermont Yankee, where he could use the electrical infrastructure already in place. The $750 million project would be an economic boon to Vernon.
Not all residents are on board; some have raised concerns about safety and environmental risks. Campbell has pushed for a community vote.
Even if Vernon voters give their blessing, there's no guarantee the project will happen. Campbell is hoping to get gas from a Massachusetts pipeline that has yet to be built; he still needs to settle on a location; and he needs approval from state and regional authorities.
If residents vote no, Campbell has promised to drop the plan.
Rooms, Meals and Booze
At least four municipalities — Barre City, Hartford, Ludlow and Montpelier — are asking voters to approve a "local option" tax. State law allows towns to levy a 1 percent tax on sales, rooms, meals and alcohol, provided the state gets a 30 percent cut. Sixteen towns already have a local option tax in place; others, including Montpelier, have tried and failed to pass one.
This time, capital city officials are setting their sights lower, proposing a tax on rooms, meals and alcohol, but not a general sales tax. Local business owners are campaigning against it, on grounds that it unfairly targets the restaurant and hospitality industries. Legislators would pay more at Sarducci's, but they have no say in this matter.
Odd School Out?
Nearly two dozen school districts are deciding whether to merge their school boards to form larger administrative entities.
Enticed by the financial incentives offered through Act 46, residents of towns in the Rutland South Supervisory Union will decide whether to create a single school board with representatives from Tinmouth, Clarendon, Shrewsbury and Wallingford. Voters in the following supervisory unions will be making the same decision: Addison Central (Weybridge, Ripton, Shoreham, Bridport, Cornwall, Salisbury and Middlebury); Addison Northwest (Vergennes, Ferrisburgh, Addison, Panton and Waltham); Franklin Central (Fairfield, St. Albans City and St. Albans Town); and Orange Southwest (Braintree, Brookfield and Randolph).
Lastly, residents of Huntington will get another chance to join the Mount Mansfield Modified Union School District. In November 2014, Huntington was the only town in the Chittenden East Supervisory Union to vote against creating a merged district, which was ultimately formed without the town.