Reuniting the town, for centuries, has been a staple of life in New England – but the coronavirus pandemic could hasten the departure of the tradition where people come together to debate everything from buying to local road equipment with multi-million dollar budgets to pressing social problems.
The basis of the town hall meeting is getting everyone together in the same room – sometimes a literal town hall, sometimes a school gymnasium – where voters will discuss local issues until a decision is made.
The restrictions on in-person gatherings imposed by the pandemic make this impossible.
Some communities are delaying meetings this year until the virus is hopefully better under control. Others use pre-printed ballots to settle issues, foregoing the one-day debate altogether.
Some fear that the temporary workaround may persist even after life returns to normal.
“I would be very disappointed if people thought that this is a new model because it would take us completely away from the essence of the municipal assembly, which is the opportunity to meet with our fellow citizens, to hear directly to our elected officials, to question, to challenge them, to debate a budget and public issues in an assembled meeting, âsaid former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, who for 33 years was moderator in his Middlebury hometown.
But others counter that the challenges of bringing people together in a meeting in town, virus or not, limit the number of people who can attend.
In Vermont, where the traditional Town Meeting Day – the first Tuesday in March – is a public holiday, the state has only allowed cities this year to decide local issues with pre-printed ballots. Most of the cities that chose the option held remote information meetings to help voters make informed decisions.
In Middlesex, Vermont, voters will vote on Tuesday on a measure that, if approved, would allow the city to continue with pre-printed ballots to decide everything from credits for the local library to payments for social programs – but the city budget.
Vic Dwire, a longtime Middlesex resident, who supports the measure, said it would allow more people to vote.
“The point is, a lot of people think they can’t ask any questions at city meetings,” said Dwire, who is running for a seat on the Middlesex board this year. “It gives people the opportunity to participate in democracy and vote from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm”
But others think it would take something away from the process.
âWe need empowered, face-to-face deliberations,â said Susan Clark, Town of Middlesex meeting moderator.
Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos has said he’s not taking a stand on the choices cities make about their meetings, but he understands why some are pushing for change.
Many people cannot attend traditional town meetings, which can last all day.
âThey can live in one city and work in another city and it’s hard to have free time,â Condos said. âThey can have kids, a school, anything that interferes with their life. It’s not like it was 100 years ago.
In Maine, the pandemic wiped out town meetings last year for more than 400 of the state’s 486 municipalities that hold spring meetings. Thanks to an emergency governor’s order, many cities in Maine are once again using preprinted secret ballot votes this year to make decisions.
âThe point is, a lot of people think they can’t ask questions at city meetings. It gives people a chance to participate in democracy … “
Eric Conrad of the Maine Municipal Association said more people voted by secret ballot than at previous traditional town hall meetings.
âThis democratic compromise is lost. But participation is better, âhe said.
City meetings evolved from the time when the first European settlers in what would become the six New England states would meet in a meeting house, usually the church, and decide all local matters. They are still used in one form or another in New England’s six states: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.
Over the centuries, power shifted to groups of local “selected men” who were chosen to make the decisions of the communities and the system continued to evolve, said Douglas, the former governor of Vermont.
Now, some communities use representative municipal assemblies where residents are elected to represent their neighbors. Other communities use a combination of floor debates, votes and pre-printed ballots for different questions. In large communities, voters are already deciding issues with pre-printed ballots.
In Massachusetts, where some of New England’s first town halls were established in the 1630s, 300 of 351 municipalities continue to hold town halls in one form or another, according to Secretary of State William’s office. Galvin.
Massachusetts lawmakers last year allowed cities to postpone their annual city meetings until the summer, allowing many to hold them outside after the initial wave of the virus ended.
In New Hampshire, traditional town hall meetings are held on the second Tuesday in March. Last year in Henniker, the municipal assembly from March was postponed to June and then July, when voters dispersed to a school.
This year, Henniker officials decided to hold a meeting on March 13, with voters spaced as far apart as possible in a gymnasium.
” I hope it will last. If we continue to have things like this then I think we will have to reconsider the situation, but hopefully this is a once in a lifetime thing and we can get back to normal, âsaid Cordell Johnstone, moderator of the town of Henniker. âAt this point the question is whether city meetings are a viable way to run the city and I think for most cities it is. “
Associated Press reporters David Sharp in Portland, Maine, Phil Marcelo in Stoneham, Massachusetts, and Holly Ramer, in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.