Town Meeting Day

Town Meeting Day, a Vt. Tradition, Sees Major Changes During Pandemic

The familiar in-person meetings have largely been replaced by an emphasis on paper ballots

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Town Meeting Day in Vermont will look quite different this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vermonters know the first Tuesday in March is Town Meeting Day, but in Johnson and other communities statewide, it doesn’t quite feel like it.

“It’s really different,” observed Eric Osgood, the chair of the Johnson Selectboard, referring to how there won’t be a traditional meeting this year in his community.

The decision was an easy one, Osgood said, and was made to cut the chances of spreading the coronavirus in a packed school gym.

Normally, town meeting is where questions to local officials, debates with neighbors, and voice votes would tackle the annual budget.

In Johnson this year, hot-button issues include where ATVs can operate in town, and whether the community is open to hosting an eventual cannabis store.

Instead of that face-to-face meeting, the Johnson Selectboard held virtual presentations this year, and automatically sent ballots to every Johnson voter. It’s looking like that’ll drive turnout higher than most years, Osgood said.

“It’s good to see more participation, but on the flip side, you don’t have the spirited debates on all the articles and the opportunity to amend them or anything like that,” Osgood noted. “It’s simply a ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ type of vote.”

The Vermont legislature stated its session Wednesday with most operations happening remotely due to the pandemic. This year, more women will be playing major leadership roles.

Secretary of State Jim Condos said the Vermont Legislature and Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, gave individual communities a lot of flexibility in how they run their 2021 Town Meeting Day votes.

“All the changes that are happening this year are just for this year,” Condos emphasized.

Historically, Vermont communities have either held a floor vote, a paper ballot vote, or a hybrid of the two.

Most towns that used to have in-person meetings have replaced them with a November-style paper ballot, Condos said.

The Vermont State House is doing its part to reduce carbon emissions through a project unlike anything else in the country.

The secretary of state’s office provides a list of polling places on its website and urges Vermonters to check with their local clerk with questions about how to participate in Town Meeting Day 2021.

“Your vote is your voice—exercise it,” Condos said.

In Troy, Town Meeting Day will happen in two phases.

The small town on the Canadian border is holding a school budget and school board vote by private ballot on the normal day, March 2, but all other town business will be decided at an in-person meeting the evening of June 8.

That way, the town has a chance to hold the event outside, for an extra layer of health protection, town clerk Terri Medley said. She said the change to the evening may also allow more people to attend the meeting if they were unable to during the day.

Medley added that Troy sees value in the democratic get-togethers—especially after social distancing for so long during the pandemic.

“The ones that don’t come, it’s too bad,” Medley said in an interview with NECN Monday. “Because it’s nice to see everybody together and everybody’s usually in a good mood. You can socialize a little bit. There’s nothing wrong with that in a small town—it’s good.”

Medley said “one would hope” that next year, Town Meeting Day will be back to normal.

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