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Monday, Apr 22, 2024

Town Meeting Day marked by historic victories, anger over school budgets

Last week, Vermonters gathered in their respective towns across the state to discuss and vote on current political issues.
Last week, Vermonters gathered in their respective towns across the state to discuss and vote on current political issues.

Vermont’s small-town character gives residents the unique opportunity to discuss key issues with their community through its annual tradition of Town Meeting Day. Vermonters gathered in their respective towns across the state to convene on topics like municipal and school budgets, as well as selectboard and presidential primary elections. The meetings took place on Monday, March 4 before people voted on ballot-specific items on Tuesday, March 5.

The tradition has its roots in the Congregationalist Church and dates back to 1762, according to Professor of Political Science Bert Johnson. Though the tradition occurs in other towns throughout New England, it is highly important to the character of local politics in Vermont. 

“It's a real significant amount of power that is in the hands of just the assembled,” said Johnson, who attends the town of Middlebury’s Town Meeting Day each year. 

Johnson noted that the gathering has a significant community feel to it, allowing for time in the agenda to express gratitude to retired town officers and recite a dedication to the town report. In Bethel, Vt., youth cheerleaders from the town’s recreational club cheered on stage to engage the crowd in an event that included complimentary coffee and pie.

Town Meeting Day typically sees an average of approximately 20% turnout for each town throughout the state, according to a study done by Frank Bryan, a former professor of political science at the University of Vermont. 

“It’s not terribly low in the grand context of local government there,” Johnson noted, adding that while ballot voting would likely see higher voter turnout than in-person town meetings, there is  higher turnout in smaller towns where residents are likely to see their neighbors in the room.

During the voting phase of Middlebury’s two-part Town Meeting Day this year, residents cast ballots for candidate Joe Biden in the Democratic primary, and Nikki Haley in the Republican primary, with an overwhelming 426 votes for Haley against 193 for former president Donald Trump, according to reporting from The Addison Independent. Vermont was Haley’s only Super Tuesday win, and second win of the primaries after winning Washington D.C. She dropped out of the race on Wednesday, March 6. 

With regard to spending bills, Middlebury voters approved the municipal spending plan of $13.6 million, which will require an almost 3% increase in the town’s current property tax rate. Residents also voted in favor of a $1.5 million bond to upgrade stormwater infrastructure on South Street. This decision follows high levels of damage witnessed in last summer’s flooding. Voters approved a $1.2 million bond to complete the reconstruction of Bakery Lane in downtown Middlebury from flooding damage, according to The Addison Independent. 

Another issue of note for this year’s elections was school budgets. Across the state, voters rejected around one-third of the proposed school budgets — an unusually large portion. In Addison County, although the town of Middlebury approved a school budget of $50 million, other towns such as Brandon, Goshen, Whiting and Leicester saw their proposed school budgets be defeated, according to The Addison Independent.

The issue of school budgets has been rising in controversy over the past few months.

“The increase in overall education spending statewide looks to be like 19%, which means that a lot of school budgets have gone up, which means that people’s property taxes get impacted,” Johnson explained. 

In the state of Vermont, school districts are funded by local property taxes. This February, the state government passed an emergency update to Act 127 that allows towns to cap a local property tax increase at 5% if school districts were facing budgetary pressures that led to increased spending. 

“Act 127 created a set of incentives that the state legislature did not anticipate, and that has created uncertainty and last-minute changes for school boards and voters,” wrote Professor of Political Science Sarah Stroup in an email to The Campus. 

As a result of the update to Act 127, school districts proposed much higher budgets, prompting the state government to change the law a month and a half before Town Meeting Day. With this time constraint, school districts scrambled to adjust but largely kept their proposed high budgets, forcing voters to reckon with the resulting higher property taxes.

Burlington’s City Election saw the highest voter turnout in a decade, as voters elected the first woman and openly LGBTQ+ mayor of the city, Emma Mulvaney-Stanak. The Progressive former city councilor and state representative beat out city councilor and Democrat Joan Shannon for the position. 

Mulvaney-Stanak’s win comes at a time when public safety is a key issue in the city of Burlington. Following the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in summer 2020, the Burlington City Council approved a reduction in the general fund police budget for the 2021 fiscal year. The move cut the department’s police force by 30%, according to reporting from the Burlington Free Press. Burlington has seen a rise in high-profile crime issues, opioid addiction and an increase in unhoused people setting up tents throughout the city following the 2021 vote. 

“There is an allegation that those two things are linked now,” said Johnson, adding that it is also possible there is no correlation between the reduced budget and public safety issues. 

While Shannon primarily supported police funding and expansion in her campaign, Mulvaney-Stanak touted a combination of increased social services and strategic police staffing and funding as the solution to public safety concerns.

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“I think sometimes the Progressive box people want to put me in is that I want to continue to change staffing patterns of police and that that will make the city more unsafe, and it’s just patently false because I do strongly think that police have a strategic and important role,” Mulvaney-Stanak told VTDigger last fall. 

Mulvaney-Stanak was wise to not ignore this issue, Johnson said, as he also noted that public safety is an issue that transcends county and state borders. Cities are seeing increased crime and a larger unhoused population, as has also been occurring in Middlebury

“I guess it seems to have resonated with voters,” Johnson said, in reference to Mulvaney-Stanak’s policies. 

With the close of Town Meeting Day for 2024, some towns have proposed a switch to the standard Australian ballot form of voting that occurs throughout most other states in the country. Some towns switched to paper ballot voting during the Covid-19 pandemic, when no town meetings occurred, and have not changed back to in-person voting, according to Vermont Public

Johnson remarked on the special value of Town Meeting Day to Vermonters and their civic engagement 

“There is something that is lost, which is that in-person learning,” he said.“I know it doesn’t exist in the same way elsewhere. So you know, we could survive as a community if it went away, but we’d be losing something.” 

Emily Hogan

Emily Hogan '24 (she/her) is a Local Editor.   

She is studying Environmental Policy with a minor in Math. In addition to writing and editing for the Campus, she also dances with the On Tap dance troupe and serves on the Environmental Council. She has previously worked with the Sustainability Solutions Lab at Middlebury.