MIDDLESEX, Vt. – The town meeting, for centuries, has been a staple of New England life – but the coronavirus pandemic could hasten the departure from the tradition where people gather to debate everything from buying equipment local truck with budgets of several million dollars for urgent social problems.
The basis of the town hall is to get 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.
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 contained. Others use pre-printed ballots to decide issues, forgoing the day-long debate altogether.
Some are concerned that the temporary workaround will persist even after it’s back to normal.
“I would be very disappointed if people think this is a new model because it would take us completely away from the essence of the town meeting, which is an opportunity to meet with our fellow voters, to hear directly from our elected officials, to question, to challenge them, to debate a budget and public issues in an assembled meeting,” said former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas, who served as a moderator for 33 years in his hometown of Middlebury.
But others counter that the challenges of bringing people together at a town meeting, 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 holiday, the state this year allowed cities only to decide local issues with pre-printed ballots. Most cities that have chosen this option have held remote information meetings to help voters make informed decisions.
In Middlesex, Vermont, voters will vote Tuesday on a measure that, if approved, would force 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 .
Long-time Middlesex resident Vic Dwire, who supports the measure, said it would allow more people to vote.
“The fact is that a lot of people think they can’t ask any questions at town 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 a.m. to 7 p.m.”
But others think it would take something away from the process.
“We need face-to-face and empowered deliberations,” said Middlesex Town Meeting moderator Susan Clark.
Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos said he takes no position 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.
“They can live in one city and work in another city, and it’s hard to have free time,” Condos said. “They can have children, go to school, whatever interferes with their lives. It’s not like it was 100 years ago. »
In Maine, the pandemic last year eliminated town meetings for more than 400 of the state’s 486 municipalities that hold spring meetings. Thanks to an emergency order from the governor, many cities in Maine are using pre-printed secret ballot votes again this year to make decisions.
Eric Conrad of the Maine Municipal Association said more people voted by secret ballot than have attended previous traditional town meetings.
“This democratic compromise is lost. But participation is better,” he said.
Town assemblies evolved from the days when early European settlers in what would become the six states of New England met in a meeting house, usually the church, and decided all local matters. They are still used in one form or another in all six New England states: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.
Over the centuries, power was transferred 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 neighbours. Other communities use a combination of in-room debates, votes, and pre-printed ballots for different issues. In larger communities, voters already decide issues with pre-printed ballots.
In Massachusetts, where some of New England’s first town assemblies were established in the 1630s, 300 of 351 townships continue to hold town assemblies in one form or another, according to Secretary of State William’s office. Galvin.
Last year, Massachusetts lawmakers allowed cities to postpone their annual town hall meetings until the summer, allowing many to hold them outdoors after the initial wave of the virus subsided.
In New Hampshire, traditional town meetings are held on the second Tuesday in March. Last year in Henniker, the March town meeting was postponed to June and then July, when voters scattered at a school.
This year, Henniker officials decided to hold a meeting on March 13, with voters spaced out as much as possible in a gymnasium.
“Hopefully it will last. If we continue to have things like this then I think we will have to re-examine the situation, but hopefully this is a once in a lifetime thing and we can get back to the normal,” said Henniker Town Moderator Cordell Johnstone. “At this point it’s a question of whether the town meeting is a viable way to run the town and I think for most towns that’s is the case.”