Pandemic Changes Town Meeting Day Gatherings In Vermont | WAMC

Pandemic Changes Town Meeting Day Gatherings In Vermont

Mar 3, 2021

Town Meeting Day is traditionally when Vermonters gather to debate and decide local elections, budgets and community issues in town halls and auditoriums.  Voters assessed a number of items during non-traditional meetings this year.

The Vermont Secretary of State had urged towns to suspend in-person meetings this year due to the pandemic. The majority of communities complied and used Australian ballots, mail-in and early voting to determine local races and ballot questions.

In Rutland, Republican Mayor David Allaire easily won reelection against six challengers.  Middlebury College Professor of Political Science Bert Johnson says he won by using a successful argument of proven leadership in the midst of the pandemic. 

“Now I think that there are some residuals from previous battles having to do with the Louras-Allaire race years ago with the divisions that occurred over refugee resettlement and I imagine those issues have not gone away and issues surrounding those kinds of divisions have not gone away," Johnson said. "But for now Allaire remains in power.”

About two dozen communities asked voters to approve retail sales of cannabis. Johnson said that was the major statewide issue.  “It seemed to do quite well. Only a very few cities rejected marijuana dispensaries.”

School budgets are a traditional Town Meeting Day item across Vermont and Johnson said they did well this year. He says Bennington voters defeated one of the more intriguing ballot questions. 

“They once again voted not to adopt a mayoral system for Bennington and this is something like the fifth time they’ve voted on this and the fifth time the voters have reached the same result," said Johnson.

Johnson said he attends Middlebury’s town meeting every year and finds it sad that the majority of Vermont communities defaulted to Australian balloting this year due to the pandemic.

“There is something lost there and it is that in person debate and the opportunity to vote and change the town budget or town measures if you decide to from the floor," he added. "That’s just a kind of dynamism in a democratic system that doesn’t exist via Australian ballot.”

Some Vermont communities stuck with in-person meetings.  In the Northeast Kingdom town of Kirby moderator John McClaughry says about 10 people attended on Tuesday. 

“Our town decided we would open the Town Meeting as we had traditionally done and then the selectmen made a motion to adjourn the meeting until May 22nd at which time we hope we can have it outdoors or whether the restrictions will be relaxed considerably by then," McClaughry said. "Whereupon that motion carried. And so much for Town Meeting.”  

This is the 55th year McClaughry has moderated Kirby’s Town Meeting. He says holding an in-person session is the town’s way of showing it values the more than 200-year-old tradition of grassroots democracy and will keep it alive within the requirements of the pandemic. 

“Every time you push a decision off to an Australian ballot at the polling place, or even worse yet a mailed out Australian ballot to be returned, you have driven nails in the coffin of Town Meeting," he said. "So Kirby decided that we were going to maintain the principle even though most of the substance won’t be dealt with until our next Town Meeting in May.”

Any charter changes approved by voters must subsequently be approved by the Vermont Legislature.