On Tuesday, March 2, Vermonters will participate in a Town Meeting Day unlike any other. At least a dozen towns are mailing ballots to all active registered voters. A handful have moved their polling stations outdoors, and several have postponed their votes altogether.
While the coronavirus threatens to rob Town Meeting Day of its vaunted charm, it has not diminished the day's local importance. As more people get vaccinated and the prospect of life A.P. (After Pandemic) grows nearer, towns and cities will gradually need to shift from crisis to recovery mode. Decisions made at the polls could help or hinder those efforts.
COVID-19 aside, figuring out how much to spend on school budgets, who should serve on selectboards and school boards (see "Stepping Up"), and whether or not communities such as Montpelier should host marijuana stores just can't wait. Nor can Peacham's proposed snowplow monikers.
Here is a sampling of issues that local voters will consider around Vermont.
Last year, the Town and City of St. Albans sought to jointly fund a new $5.5 million community pool. The project earned strong support among city voters. But it belly flopped in the town, where residents shot it down by 37 votes. Instead of scrapping the plan, the city now wants to plunge ahead alone, proposing a $5 million bond to cover the costs.
City Councilor Mike McCarthy said residents urged the council to put the matter to another vote even if it meant taking on debt, because the Hard'ack Recreation Area's seasonal pool is barely treading water. Built four decades ago, the public pool has lasted 15 years beyond its estimated lifespan.
"Every year, there are huge issues with whether it will be able to open," McCarthy said. "It's not going to be operable, maybe, in a year or two. It's time for us to make this investment."
Among the new pool's features would be a sloped entry providing easier access for people of all ages and abilities. Amenities would include a new pool house and snack bar; an inflatable dome encasing the facility would make it usable year-round.
The city would pay off the bond's estimated $300,000 annual debt using revenue from an existing local option tax, and daily operation would be funded through user fees, McCarthy said. City residents would pay a reduced fee; the facility would be open to others, but at a higher rate. Some neighboring towns already partner with the city to use its recreational offerings and might also qualify for the lower fee, McCarthy said. He imagined the city might even be open to negotiating a similar agreement with St. Albans Town, too, should the latter feel so inclined.
"We would hope to partner with them on that," he said.
A pistol in every pot?
The owner of Slate Ridge, a controversial weapons training center in Pawlet, is running for his local selectboard — despite the fact that it is suing him.
Daniel Banyai told the Rutland Herald earlier this month that he was running a campaign against "favoritism, nepotism and corruption." Should he be elected, he said, he would seek to have town officials removed from office and would use his access to town records to prompt federal investigations.
Banyai himself is already under scrutiny following media reports about his aggressive behavior toward town officials and neighbors. Pawlet is suing him in environmental court for running Slate Ridge without a necessary town permit. Last month, a judge ordered him to stop all training activities until the case is decided.
Among Banyai's competitors for the Pawlet Selectboard is Rich Hulett, a business owner who lives on property that abuts Slate Ridge. Hulett's wife, Mandy, recently obtained a two-year protection order against Banyai based on threatening posts he made against her family on Slate Ridge's Facebook page. Posts cited in that ruling included one that named the Huletts and said they must be "eradicate[d]."
Reached last week, Rich Hulett said he had long wanted to run for the selectboard and finally felt established enough to do so. He declined to comment on Banyai beyond saying that his own candidacy had nothing to do with Slate Ridge. Yet while discussing several goals should he be elected, Hulett said, "I think it's important the Town of Pawlet has a board that will listen to [resident] requests and investigate their requests on their behalf." He declined to elaborate.
Seven Days sought an interview with Banyai, as well, via Slate Ridge's Facebook page. In response, he asked whether Seven Days had ever written negatively about him. He later indicated he had read the paper's coverage and wrote, "NO COMMENT."
Hold the salt?
On its most basic level, Town Meeting Day is about permission: Towns want the go-ahead to spend taxpayer money; candidates, to represent voters. In Charlotte, one ballot item takes this civic exercise to a new level.
"Shall the town vote to endorse the Road Commissioner continuing to use his sole discretion to independently determine and apply the best suited ratio of salt to sand, including circumstances when 100% salt may be applied?" the ballot items reads, adding, "Advisory motion only."
The question was sought by Hugh Lewis Jr., who has held the road commissioner post for more than two decades, giving him authority over Charlotte's plowing operation.
While Lewis technically has the power to use whatever mixture of sand and salt he sees fit, the selectboard has long encouraged him to rely more on sand — even though, he contends, salt is more effective. He currently favors sand over salt for the nitty-gritty task, by a ratio of 6 to 1, but said he wanted to gauge how voters felt about turning the tables.
"Do they think they want to stay using sand?" he said. "Or do we want to come up to the 21st century and be with everyone else?"
The granular debate is by no means new: Town Administrator Dean Bloch said it has come up repeatedly during annual meetings, sometimes earning more than 30 minutes of floor time. Sodium critics — the town's two most recent tree wardens among them — cite environmental concerns, noting that salt harms trees such as sugar maples and can end up in waterways. Supporters, meanwhile, say there are times when sand only makes matters worse.
Drivers often complain to Lewis that roads in other towns are far clearer after a big winter storm, he said: "I tell them that's because they use salt. It's hard to melt snow and ice with sand."
Lewis said he would likely use 100 percent salt more often should the vote come back in his favor, but only as conditions warrant. "A little bit of salt," he said, "would go a long way."
If women in Brandon took "no taxation without representation" literally, they'd rarely pay a tax bill. That's because the town has gone more than six years without a woman on its selectboard — and, according to one count, has had only four women serve during the last three decades.
Lindsey Berk and Alexandra "Allie" Breyer want to change that. They're running a joint campaign for two one-year seats on the selectboard, which, they say, is not seeking out or listening to a wide range of perspectives.
"Some [women] community leaders feel they're forgotten, that there's not a seat at the table," Berk said. "People who don't look like the selectboard don't even want to go to those meetings."
Breyer agreed. "They haven't felt that it is a welcoming space for them to have their voices heard," she said. "We hope that we'll be showing people in our community that diverse perspectives and backgrounds and values are desired."
In separate interviews, the two candidates told Seven Days they are running as a team because they share values and are both newcomers, at least in Vermont terms; both moved into Brandon within the last six years. "We wanted to be able to boost our networks," Breyer said, "[and] we felt by collaborating that we could also show partnership building in action."
They're campaigning as a unit, but voters will still need to check off both of their names. Other choices on the ballot are Michael Markowski, whose family owns a local excavation company, and Seth Hopkins, the selectboard chair.
Hopkins was appointed in 2015 to fill the seat of the last woman to serve. He said he's running again because he wants to help Brandon continue to rebuild its infrastructure and finances after some difficult years. This spring, the town plans to put the finishing touches on a multiyear, $25 million-plus reconstruction of its downtown corridor along Route 7.
He said he was sorry to hear his competitors' criticisms of the current board but that he believed most observers would say he's gone to lengths to facilitate public comment during his four years as chair.
"I really believe we represent the whole community — each one of the five of us — and not an individual constituency within it," he said.
The Town of Essex is weighing a question older than many of its voters: whether to merge with the Village of Essex Junction. The debate has spanned generations of Essex families since the first merger vote more than five decades ago, but it could finally near a conclusion should voters approve a proposed charter for a merged community.
Before diving into the specifics, a brief primer: Because the Village of Essex Junction is within the Town of Essex, village residents vote — and pay taxes — in both municipalities, while "town-outside-the- village" residents only do so in the town. Proponents of the merger view this as unfair. Opponents argue that the merger would only create new inequities.
"The problem they have is, the village folks keep on voting for bigger budgets — they have their 7:30 a.m. sidewalk plowing, lots of park and rec [services]," said Ken Signorello, a town-outside-the-village resident and leading critic of the merger plan. "They voted for those things. Town-outside-the-village didn't. Merger basically shifts all those expenses."
The proposal seeks to lessen the tax blow by phasing in the shift over a 12-year period.
For a non-village homeowner with a median-value, $280,000 house, that means taxes would increase at the rate of $25 a year until the bill was $330 higher than today. The owners of a similar-value home in the village, on the other hand, would see their property tax bill gradually decrease to $500 less than today. The two groups would eventually pay a similar tax rate.
"It finds a middle ground ... and spreads the cost evenly and fairly across the community," said town selectboard chair Elaine Haney, who favors the merger.
Voters have a preview of how a merger would actually work in practice. During the past five years, the two municipalities consolidated departments in an effort to save money and inch toward the merger; they now share a town manager, a finance director and other employees.
To make the full plunge, the communities would have to agree on a single charter. The village already approved one last November, while the town votes on a slightly different version next week. The proposals would then head to the Vermont legislature, where lawmakers would need to settle several notable differences.
Take 'em somewhere else: That's the message a concerned group of citizens in Winooski hopes to send to the state about the highly controversial F-35 jets, which have been based in Vermont for more than a year now. A resident-driven ballot item asks voters whether the city should "urge the State to halt F-35 training flights in a densely populated area," such as the Onion City.
Winooski isn't the first municipality to howl foul. Last April, the Burlington City Council asked Gov. Phil Scott and Vermont's congressional delegation to ground F-35 training flights while people were forced to stay home in the early days of the pandemic. Those in the flight path need only lift their windows to know how that went.
Yet some Winooski voters wanted to send the message anyway and urged their city council to put language similar to Burlington's up for a vote. When the council demurred, the citizens started a petition to force the issue. They fell 10 signatures short of what was needed to officially request a ballot item — 248, or 5 percent of registered voters. But the council took up the request regardless, approving it last month by a 3-2 vote.
Hal Colston, one of the three councilors to approve the request, doesn't expect the resolution to make much of a difference. "But it's great for people to feel that they do have a voice," he said.
Another fleet of vehicles is up for judgment in Peacham, though residents face a slightly different request: "Shall the voters adopt the names chosen by students of Peacham School for the 5 town plow trucks: Sparkles, Day Blaze, Fearless Frosty, Ice Cream and Got Snow?"
Town Clerk Thomas Galinat said the idea came from a resident who appreciated Scotland's tradition of naming snowplows. Peacham officials collaborated with Peacham Elementary School staff to hold student elections; the five names on the ballot won.
The town rotates in different plows each year under its road contract, so the inaugural vote would apply to next winter's fleet. Officials hope to make it an annual tradition — as long as the vote passes.
There's already an "enormous amount of hype" about which driver will end up clearing roads aboard Sparkles, Galinat said. He had his fingers crossed for one staffer in particular: road foreman Jeremy Withers.
"He's got a twinkle in his eye that would just really go well with it," Galinat said.
'The city is in a mess'
One of the more unusual Vermont political stories in recent years enters a new chapter next week as Vergennes plans to elect yet another mayor. Matthew Chabot, a former city manager, is running unopposed to replace Lynn Donnelly, whose short-lived tenure as mayor is ending as it began: controversially.
Donnelly took over last summer after then-mayor Jeff Fritz resigned — along with a majority of the city council — in the wake of a controversy over texts that he exchanged about the police department with the city manager.
After getting repopulated by a special election last fall, the council started discussing whether Donnelly should be able to finish out her two-year term on the council after stepping down as mayor.
Instead, she decided to call it quits entirely, but not before unleashing a series of ominous warnings on her way out the door. "If you had any idea — any idea — of the corruption that has happened in this city, and no one would stand up to it except me, you guys don't have a clue. The city is in a mess," she said at a city council meeting last month. "The financial mess is going to be somebody else's problem. But when this all collapses around you, I want you to look around at each other and remember who was here."
Pressed for proof at a subsequent meeting, Donnelly said she regretted using the word "corruption." Yet the damage was done.
Enter Chabot, who said he believes residents have a "strong desire" to move past the tumult of the last year. Many voters likely agree with that sentiment, and yet Chabot knows steadying the ship won't be an easy task. So why does he want to be the one at the helm?
"My wife," he said, "keeps asking me the same question."