Since the late 1700s, Vermont towns have held town meetings to vote on issues like local officials and municipal budgets. These meetings can be loud and crowded, as residents pack into rows of folding chairs and stand shoulder to shoulder along the wall.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to be a factor come Town Meeting Day on March 2, and these meetings in public spaces are likely to be risky.
In the years since the first Town Meeting Day, many Vermont towns have transitioned to voting via Australian ballot, or a system of voting in which voters mark their choices on ballots at a polling place.
But in Franklin County, the towns Highgate, Franklin, Montgomery, Sheldon, Enosburgh, the village of Enosburg Falls, Fairfield, Bakersfield and Fletcher all still hold traditional town meetings, where items are voted on by a voice vote or hand count.
In October 2020, the Vermont Legislature passed Act 162, which allows communities to vote to use Australian ballot for Town Meeting come March 2021.
Highgate, Franklin, Montgomery, Sheldon and Fletcher all voted to use Australian ballot, but according to Vermont state law, an informational hearing prior to the March election is required.
According to Act 92, which the Vermont Legislature passed in March 2020, informational hearings, where the items to be voted upon are explained and debated, may be conducted remotely, over Zoom or another virtual meeting platform.
Will Senning, the director of elections and campaign finance for the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office, said the hearing must be held within the 10 days preceding the election where the Australian ballot is being used.
That means in most cases, the informational hearing must be conducted between Feb. 20 and March 1. Voters will go to the polls on March 2.
Some towns might fear that if they opt for a virtual hearing, attendance might be low because of residents’ unreliable internet connections.
“That concern is understood,” Senning said. “It’s a rock in a hard place this year.”
One solution to the problem is that informational hearings are required to have conference call availability.
“It’s not a perfect solution, but you have the remote meeting and then some people can call in on a landline,” Senning said. “That’s another option for people who may not have broadband.”
Some towns, like Georgia and Fairfax, use a combination of a floor vote and Australian ballot.
Georgia votes on its budget and some procedural items through a town meeting. Fairfax also votes on procedural items through a meeting.
Senning said current Vermont law does not allow floor votes to be conducted virtually. Therefore, these meetings must be held in-person, but must also abide by current health and safety guidelines.
This means no more than 50% of a room’s fire safety capacity may be filled and no more than one person can occupy 100 square feet of space. In total, no more than 75 people can gather together indoors, according the the state’s COVID-19 guidance.
Floor votes can be held at the same time as the Australian ballot on Tuesday, or on the Saturday, Sunday or Monday before, Senning said.
Vermont towns are required by law to meet annually on the first Tuesday of March, but on Jan. 12, the Vermont Legislature is expected to vote on H. 48, a bill that if passed would allow towns to move the date of their 2021 annual meeting.
If your town is using Australian ballot, you can request an absentee ballot, or a main-in ballot, from your Town Clerk’s office. You can also make a request using the My Voter Page (mvp.vermont.gov) on the Secretary of State’s website.
If H. 48 is passed, it would also authorize towns to mail ballots to all active, registered voters as they did for the General Election in November 2020.
Have a question about Town Meeting Day you’d like answered? Send an email to email@example.com.
Here’s a rundown of things to know and keep in mind for this week, including state and local news, COVID-19 testing information, and weather.
Vermont legislators to act on a bill pertaining to town meeting changes
The Vermont House is expected to debate and vote on bill H.48 on Tuesday, a piece of legislation that would allow for procedural changes of municipalities’ town meetings because of the pandemic.
H.48 would authorize municipalities to move the date of their 2021 annual town meeting, authorize municipalities to mail Australian ballots for use in 2021 annual town meetings, specify that terms of elected board members will continue until a successor is chosen, and permit the Secretary of State to issue supplemental elections procedures to protect the health and safety of voters, election workers, and candidates.
Watch the session by visiting legislature.vermont.gov/house/streaming/.
St. Albans City Council to discuss a year-round pool and a proposed water tower
The St. Albans City Council has a healthy agenda lined up for Monday night’s regular meeting. Among other topics to be discussed are the possibility of a year-round pool being built at the Hard’ack Recreation Area and a proposed water town being built at Aldis Hill.
The agenda also includes a presentation of information for voters and a proposal for TIF funds and SRF bond for the Kingman Street streetscape and an overview of Town Meeting Day’s articles and voting details.
Virtual workshop: Job Searching in a Pandemic
Through its Vermont Returnship Program, Associates for Training & Development (A4TD) is holding a free, virtual, and interactive workshop on Wednesday that looks to help you find a job during these trying times.
The workshop is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 13 from 12-1 p.m. Topics to be discussed include online interviewing, LinkedIn essentials, social media pitfalls, tips for mature and experienced workers, positioning yourself for the future, and opportunities that can help such as internships and training options.
Find the workshop on Zoom by searching for the meeting ID 884 8253 2922. Questions can be directed to Ron Redmond at (802) 307-2075 or rredmond@A4TD.org.
Where to get tested
Free COVID-19 testing is available in Franklin County this week though the Vermont Department of Health at the state office building at 27 Federal St. It will be open for free testing Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., but you will need to register and sign up for a time slot.
Kinney Drugs is also offering testing on Monday and Thursday from 10 a.m. — 4 p.m. Appointments are required and can be made at kinneydrugs.as.me/StAlbansStore18.
There are also plenty of openings for the health department’s sites in Chittenden County. Find out how to register and a full list of the free testing sites at healthvermont.gov/covid-19/testing/where-get-tested.
Where to give blood
Here are a list of blood drives being facilitated by the Red Cross in or near Franklin County this week:
Warmer temps and dry skies await
The National Weather Service isn’t expecting much precipitation this week after Monday flurries and 50% chance of snow showers Monday night that could result in half an inch of accumulation.
Winds will be strongest Thursday night into Friday when they’re expected to be upwards of 15-17 mph. Temperatures will be slightly higher than they were last week with Saturday night’s low of 23 being the coldest it will get; most of the week will see highs around the freezing point while Friday could reach 38 degrees.
THIS WEEK’S MEETINGS
St. Albans Town Selectboard: Special meeting held virtually at 3 p.m. Monday, Jan. 11.
Franklin West Supervisory Union Board of School Directors: Special meeting held virtually at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 11
Montgomery Library Board of Trustees: Regular meeting at the public safety building Monday, Jan. 11 at 6 p.m.
Fairfax School District Board of School Directors: Regular meeting held virtually at 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 11
St. Albans City Council: Regular meeting held virtually Monday, Jan. 11 with an executive session beginning at 6:10 p.m. before the open session begins around 6:30 p.m.
Georgia Selectboard: Regular meeting held virtually Monday, Jan. 11 at 7 p.m.
Swanton Board of Trustees: Regular meeting held virtually at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 11
Georgia School District Board of School Directors: Special meeting held virtually at 5:15 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12 (changed from Monday, Jan. 11)
Montgomery Selectboard: Special meeting with the Budget Committee held virtually at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12
Fletcher School District Board of School Directors: Regular meeting held virtually Tuesday, Jan. 12 at 6 p.m.
Montgomery Planning Commission: Regular meeting held virtually at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12
St. Albans Town Planning Commission: Regular meeting held virtually Tuesday, Jan. 12 at 6:30 p.m.
Missisquoi Valley School District School Board: Special meeting held virtually at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12
Georgia Selectboard: Budget meeting held virtually at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 13
Highgate Development Review Board: Regular meeting held virtually at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14
St. Albans Town Development Review Board: Regular meeting held virtually at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14