Boards struggle with holding annual meetings during pandemic Legislation may give municipalities more options

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2020 Telegraph Publishing, LLC

Town Meeting day is more than two months away, but municipalities — including school districts — throughout Vermont are working out how that annual ritual of direct democracy will be handled during a global pandemic in which personal contact can be hazardous.

Londonderry residents line up in to cast paper ballots during the 2016 Town Meeting. Telegraph file photo

When Gov. Phil Scott announced his stay home order on March 24, most towns, school districts and other municipalities had already held their annual meetings on Town Meeting Day, three weeks earlier on March 3. And since then, many of us – including the Vermont legislature – have learned to manage our business via remote meetings. But Town Meeting is a special case where — for a number of reasons — a Zoom meeting will not meet the requirements of state law. Most important among them is the difficulty of verifying the voter status of attendees.

So last October, the solons in Montpelier looked at the problem of conducting the 2021 annual meetings in a pandemic and passed a bill that Gov. Phil Scott signed.

Their solution was Act 162 that broadly allows local municipalities to decide whether to hold annual meetings in person or to put questions on an Australian ballot that would normally be voted on during a meeting. It also allows those who want to run for public office to do so without collecting signatures on a petition. A prospective candidate must still sign a consent form with the town clerk be placed on the ballot.

That seems straight forward enough, but according to Jenny Prosser, General Counsel with Secretary of State Jim Condos’ office, the meeting must also adhere to whatever restrictions on gathering are in force at that time. And that could put a limit on the number of people who could attend a public meeting, which all voters would have the right -under Vermont law – to attend.

Currently, according to the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, attendance at municipal meetings must be less than 50 percent of the fire safety occupancy or 1 person per 100 square feet with a maximum of 75 people attending.

So what’s a board to do?

More than 100 Chester voters turned out for to wrangle over several issues at the town’s 2016 meeting

On Monday night, the board of the Green Mountain Union School District approved an in-person meeting in the Green Mountain High auditorium where 70 people can be seated socially distanced from one another. Board members noted that the most recent annual meetings have drawn only a handful of attendees. The meeting will include a Zoom informational meeting, but those attending online may not vote in the actual meeting. The vote was 5 – 1 with board member Kate Lamphere of Cavendish saying that people should not have to risk their health to participate in a public meeting.

Two Rivers Supervisory Union Superintendent Lauren Fierman noted that the schools generally don’t want anyone but students and employees in the buildings at this point, but visitors won’t be allowed in the rest of the high school and the room will be disinfected afterward.

Also on Monday night, the Andover Select Board decided to hold a hybrid informational meeting on Saturday, Feb. 27 with a limited number of people who want to attend in person at Andover Town Hall along with a Zoom presentation. Voting for all the articles – including the town and school budgets – will take place on Tuesday, March 2.

Select boards look for answers, possibly from Montpelier

The select boards of Londonderry and Weston are considering delaying their meetings to a later date when there will either be fewer restrictions or the meeting can be held outdoors. Both towns traditionally vote their business from the floor in meetings that can run for several hours, with lunch served afterwards or in a break.

State Rep. Tom Bock speaks to dozens of Andover residents in February 2020

Weston board member Jim Linville told The Telegraph, “Town Meeting is too precious to give away for a year if we have a chance to have community involvement in the town’s business.” Linville hoped that there will be legislation allowing towns to postpone their meetings rather than doing it remotely or entirely by Australian ballot.

According to state Rep. Tom Bock, who represents Chester, Andover and North Springfield, a draft bill is circulating in the General Assembly that would allow towns to postpone their 2021 annual meeting, authorize towns to mail ballots to every active voter and gives the Secretary of State the authority to work out procedures for voting and counting of votes.

On Tuesday Bock told The Telegraph that the legislature would take up Covid bills right away and expected that something to help local governments with these issues will pass the House quickly. But there isn’t a lot of time before boards must make decisions  ahead of deadlines for warnings and annual reports.

Ludlow Town Clerk Ulla Cook said that town’s Select Board would take up the question on Monday, Jan. 4 having discussed holding a Zoom informational meeting on Feb. 25 and putting all the questions on the Town Meeting Day Australian ballot. The Rockingham Select Board is expected to take up the question on the following night.

Chester is still “working on it,” according to Town Clerk Debbie Aldrich with the next meeting of the Chester Select Board on Wednesday, Jan. 6. Diane McNamara, Town Clerk in Cavendish, said she hopes that town’s Jan. 11 Select Board meeting will get the benefit of using new legislation as a guide for how to proceed.

Landgrove ‘Town meeting will be different’

While most towns’ meeting plans are still up in the air, tiny Landgrove – with the highest general election participation per capita in Vermont – has made its choice. Noting on its website that “Town Meeting 2021 cannot be held live in person in our little building during COVID pandemic” the town has opted for an online Information Hearing at 6 p.m. Monday, March 1 with voting the following day, when Landgrove residents will cast Australian ballots from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.  on both the Town Meeting ballot and the Taconic and Green school ballot.

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