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This Year, Many Vt. Towns Are Grappling With How To Take Direct Democracy Digital

Looking down the aisle in the town hall in Strafford on Town Meeting Day, with a high ceiling, ornate blue trim against cream walls and packed rows of voters on either side, sitting in wooden benches.
Tony Talbot
/
Associated Press File
Normally, Town Meeting Day transpires with in-person gatherings, often in packed historic buildings over homemade food and drinks. This year, towns are working to take the information part of direct democracy digital, while ensuring access for residents.

COVID-19 has altered many traditions, and town meeting is no different. This year, the bake sales, community potlucks and in-person floor votes characteristic of the day aren’t safe. So towns and their residents have had to adapt.

Some towns have postponed their town meetings altogether until they can safely meet in person. Many others are holding their informational meetings virtually and voting later, entirely by Australian ballot.

This is a big change for towns used to gathering in their school gymnasium or meeting hall to vote on things like highway spending and town budgets together over hot cider.

Karen Horn, Director of Public Policy at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, a nonprofit that assists municipalities, says they’ve been inundated with questions.

“[It's been] nonstop really, since November. I would say, as soon as the general election was over, towns started moving ahead with 'What's town meeting gonna look like,' and 'How do we make this work?'”

"As soon as the general election was over, towns started moving ahead with 'What's town meeting gonna look like,' and 'How do we make this work?'" - Karen Horn, director of public policy, Vt. League of Cities and Towns

The League created a Remote Public Meeting Toolkit with model scripts for remote meetings, detailed checklists for town officials and recommended software. They also held a town meeting webinar.

One of the recommendations they gave was for towns to provide Zoom tutorials.

Monkton offered one last weekend where townspeople and local officials could practice connecting and go over zoom basics like how to raise your hand.

Often, the people most likely to attend town meetings are older and may not have high speed internet or a computer at home.

According to the Vermont Department of Public Service, up to 61,000  locations in the state lack access to basic broadband.

In Monkton, Stephen Pilcher, the town's select board chair, says, “A lot of people don't have a computer with a webcam. People have cell phones, and the cell phone is okay, but it's not as good. And then ... we're very worried about connectivity.”

While Zoom training won’t solve connection issues, Pilcher and other own officials believe it will help demystify some of what will happen at this year’s virtual meeting and help people like Jerry Schwarz, the town’s volunteer moderator this year. 

“I gotta tell you, to be perfectly frank, I am a bit of a luddite, a technophobe,” Schwarz admitted during the town's recent training session.

And he had a lot of questions about the mechanics of a virtual meeting, especially a meeting he was expected to run.

“Let's assume that at the actual meeting, we have dozens of hands raised. Who's going to control the order?” he asked.

Pilcher went over a number of scenarios and provided suggestions about how to facilitate participation.

"Like say a question asker wants to talk about the budget," Pilcher said.

"And if we're not on the budget article," Schwarz jumped in to answer, "I'll shut 'em down and tell them to wait for that article. 'Cause that's how we're running town meeting: article by article, stick to the script … Otherwise," Schwarz continued, "It'll be pure chaos.”

In Middlebury, Brian Carpenter, the town’s select board chair, is less worried about potential technical glitches and more concerned with the implications of voting by Australian ballot this year.

"I gotta tell you, to be perfectly frank, I am a bit of a luddite, a technophobe."- Jerry Schwarz, Monkton resident

Residents usually vote on the town budget from the floor, so this year will be a big change. He said it’s hard to know what kind of voter turnout to expect.

Because of that, he says town officials decided to play it safe and level fund Middlebury’s municipal budget.

Carpenter said this year, he’ll miss seeing his neighbors and miss having the opportunity to talk over the budget and answer questions face to face.  

“But it is what it is,” he said, adding that the select board's job of explaining their decisions and the budget to voters hasn’t changed.

“So the obligation is to make sure that we cover it adequately,” Carpenter said. “So that at least people understand the issue(s) and (we) have a significant portion of the of the community telling us if we're heading the right direction or not.”

Karen Horn of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns said after the pandemic, she hopes towns that went entirely to Australian ballot will go back to floor votes, at least in part, because of the civic engagement it fosters. 

At the same time, she admits the pandemic has demonstrated that allowing residents to meet remotely has enabled more people to take part in municipal governance, which she said is also a good thing.

Going forward, she says, Vermont may see a kind of hybrid evolve, with elements of both.

Clarification 10:40 a.m. 3/19/21:  An earlier version of this story reported that 47,000 addresses were not reached by internet service that meets the federal definition of broadband. The state Department of Public Service now says that number did not include an additional 14,000 addresses that will be served through a nationwide program funded by the Federal Communications Commission.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Nina Keck @NinaPKeck.

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