Town Meeting Day is a time when Vermonters gather to discuss school and town budgets and elect local leaders. And it’s coming up quickly: on Tuesday.
Although Tuesday is Town Meeting Day some towns hold the community gatherings on Monday evening and hold official votes on Tuesday. This will be the 33rd year former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas has moderated Middlebury’s Town Meeting. Other than changing venues and having it now broadcast on local cable access, he says the meeting itself has remained fairly consistent. “It hasn’t changed much in Middlebury but in many communities it has. There’s a greater use of the Australian Ballot than there used to be. And that’s a matter of debate in each community as to whether that’s the appropriate way to conduct business. I have always said that it’s a local decision. There are pro’s and con’s to each approach. But there’s clearly been a greater use of the Australian Ballot and we did shift our school budget to an Australian Ballot a few years ago.”
Douglas expects there will be considerable interest in school budgets across the state because of the decline in student population and mandated district consolidations. "Voters have to make those difficult decisions about whether to continue operating the school or tuition their kids out to an adjoining community, to merge with another school district or to offer a level of choice for their students in that town. So I think that’s going to be a big topic in a lot of places.”
In Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom John McClaughry has moderated Kirby’s Town Meeting for 52 years. He says this year is the first time it will not include a school district meeting. “There were ten districts up here in the Northeast Kingdom together created the Northeast Kingdom Choice District. So this year our school board is no more and our town school meeting will replaced by a Australian Ballot vote on the budget of the new Northeast Kingdom Choice District. So all of the discussion about education that we’ve had in past years will be not permitted because there’s voting going on on those questions. So that’s probably the biggest change this year is what’s not going to happen.”
In Vermont’s larger cities there are some high-profile races. In Burlington 11 candidates are running for four city council seats. In neighboring Winooski Eric Covey is challenging Kristine Lott to fill the term of departed mayor Seth Leonard. He resigned at the end of January after four years to take a job at the Vermont Housing Finance Agency. Meanwhile in Rutland first-term incumbent Mayor David Allaire is being challenged by Michel Messier. Messier is also running for city treasurer.
There are few statewide questions on Town Meeting Day ballots. About a dozen towns include a resolution from 350Vermont that asks for support of their Climate Solution Resolution. Organizer Jaiel Pulskamp says the goal of the effort, which started last year, is the approval of 60 towns. “Historically resolutions of this nature have been used to bring awareness to issues and to put pressure on legislators to do something. Legislators will take notice if a large amount of these resolutions pass.”
Middlebury College Professor of Political Science Bert Johnson: “This is a real exercise of democracy in the little ’d’ sense. James Madison in Federalist 10 defines a pure democracy as a situation in which people gather together and they actually make policy all at once. And if that happens anywhere these days it happens at Town Meeting so it’s a rare event.”
Each town posts warnings ahead of Town Meeting Day with the schedule. An Australian Ballot is a uniform paper ballot marked in secret and tallied at the end of an election.