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Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Vermont Town Meeting Day resumes pre-pandemic operations

Last week, Vermonters gathered in municipalities across the state for Town Meeting Day. The annual event had the highest turnout of in-person town meetings this year since 2019. Meeting days primarily took place in a mailable ballot format the past two years due to Covid-19 restrictions. 

Falling on the first Tuesday in March each year, Town Meeting Day has been a Vermont tradition since 1762, 15 years before Vermont was officially granted statehood, according to the Vermont Secretary of State’s Citizen’s Guide to Vermont Town Meeting . While meetings 250 years ago involved discussion of smallpox vaccines and letting pigs run free, present day town meetings tend to revolve around electing local officials and approving a budget for the following fiscal year.

Local officials elected at Town Meeting Day typically include a moderator, selectboard members, the town clerk, the treasurer, listers and an auditor, the citizen’s guide said.

On Tuesday, March 7, 182 cities and towns gathered for an in-person floor meeting, and another 60 cast ballots by mail, making up a collective $750 million in spending requests, according to VTDigger. This represents a major uptick from the 63 in-person town meetings conducted in 2022.

Major issues that Vermonters voted on included water projects, school construction, street/sidewalk repairs and facility upgrades.

In the town of Middlebury, residents approved the request for a $3.5 million municipal water holding tank, according to The Addison County Independent. They also passed the proposed fiscal year 2023–24 municipal budget of $12.9 million, which represented an 8.3% increase from this year’s budget, and the $42 million Addison County School District (ACSD) budget for the 2024 fiscal year, which was a 7.2% increase in education spending from the 2023 fiscal year.

Residents voted on four candidates for two three-year terms representing Middlebury on the ACSD School Board. Youth Services Librarian at Ilsley Public Library Tricia Allen and Senior Analyst at LIDD Supply Chain Intelligence Jason Chance won the two seats.

Residents of other Addison County towns, including Bridport, Cornwall, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge also elected candidates to the district school board.

On the town selectboard, incumbents Dan Brown and Brian Carpenter ran unopposed for new three-year terms, and incumbent Isabel Gogarty ran unchallenged for a two-year term. 

Highlights from other town meetings across the state included Burlington residents voting to allow legal city residents who are not U.S. citizens to vote in local elections, Winooski becoming the first town with an entirely LGBTQ+ city council and Colchester approving a $16 million recreation center, according to NECN’s Town Meeting Day results

With the pandemic having forced communities to try mailable ballots in 2021 and 2022, many towns are considering a permanent switch to making all decisions via paper ballots, rather than through in-person floor votes. According to reporting from VTDigger, the municipalities of Marlboro, Bakersfield, Bethel, Bradford, Bridgewater, Coventry, Craftsbury, Danville, Essex Town, Franklin, Highgate, Ira, Jay, Lunenburg, Marshfield, Rockingham, Stafford, Williamstown and Wilmington are all exploring the possibility of a shift to paper ballots.

Proponents of the switch to ballots include the Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights, an organization which issued a statement arguing that in-person floor meetings are not equitable for Vermonters with disabilities, older citizens, citizens without access to transportation and citizens who cannot get childcare or time off from work. The Coalition for Disability Rights has also advocated for greater audiovisual technology to make the town meeting process more accessible.

The VTDigger reporting also stated that proponents of retaining the in-person meeting format argue that it gives people a chance to raise questions, revise the budget and walk away with a more complete picture of the town’s situation. 

While the Vermont League of Cities and Towns has not expressed an opinion on towns switching to a hybrid or mailable ballot format, the league’s 2023 Town Meeting Day Preview did emphasize the importance of town meetings to the state’s governmental system. 

“One of the largest responsibilities voters have at Town Meeting — and one of the ones that makes Vermont’s democracy somewhat unique — is that they have the say on how they raise the money their town needs to conduct business, who should pay, and who shouldn’t,” the preview reads. 

The Vermont state government website similarly states the uniqueness of Vermont’s Town Meeting Day: It is “a form of government that exists nowhere else in the world outside of New England, town meeting involves direct citizen lawmaking, true government by the governed.”

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Maggie Reynolds

Maggie Reynolds '24 (she/her) is the Editor in Chief.  

Maggie previously served as the Senior Local Editor, a Local Section Editor, and a Staff Writer. She spent this past J-term interning for VTDigger, covering topics from affordable housing in Addison County to town government scandals. She also interned for Seven Days VT as an arts & culture reporter summer 2022 and as a news reporter for the Daily Gazette in Schenectady, NY summer 2021.   

Maggie is majoring in History and minoring in Political Science and Spanish. She was a three-year member of the Women's Swimming and Diving team. Maggie enjoys running, hiking, and iced maple lattes.