Breaking down the major takeaways from Town Meeting Day
Tuesday, municipalities across Vermont held their annual Town Meeting Day to vote on local issues — from cannabis sales, to school budgets, to what to do with an old town hall building. The Vermont League of Cities and Towns has been tracking the results.
VPR's Grace Benninghoff spoke with Karen Horn, the organization’s director of public policy and advocacy, to help us understand what happened. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Grace Benninghoff: What were the biggest takeaways from Town Meeting Day this year?
Karen Horn: Well, I think that participation was quite high. And across the board, we were pretty pleased with that. There were a number of interesting issues that that were voted on yesterday. We had four towns that voted to adopt local option taxes. And then there were a number of towns that had some big-ticket items on their ballots: bonding for water and wastewater in Colchester, Vergennes, Montpelier, Manchester.
We've seen reports that a lot of Vermont towns have approved the sale of cannabis. Did we see any trends in how towns voted on this issue — regionally, size-wise?
I would say the main trend is that those ballot items were approved. There were, I believe, 40 some towns that were going to be voting on cannabis. Twenty-nine thus far have voted "yes." Six have voted "no." There are a few where the results have yet to come in. And there are a few that are holding their town meetings at a later date. So we won't know until they hold their town meetings. And n terms of size, it's large towns and small towns that have voted to approve.
There's a lot of extra money in the state right now from federal COVID relief — did that have an impact on the size or scope of projects that towns voted on this year, compared to previous years?
I think that is absolutely the impetus for the water and wastewater improvement projects being on ballots around the state. Because you can use some of those [American Rescue Plan Act] dollars to help fund those projects. I may have said this earlier: Colchester, Vergennes, Montpelier and Manchester all had water or wastewater proposals on the ballot — and certainly the ARPA funding was key, I think. Especially in Colchester where that proposal for wastewater has failed in the past.
Was there anything that surprised you about Town Meeting Day this year?
I didn't see a lot of surprises. I do think there's a couple of of items that are worthy of note, however. And one is that in the towns of Mount Tabor and Chittenden, the Select Board put on the ballot whether to adopt a declaration of inclusion saying that all peoples are welcome here. And in both towns that measure passed. So I think that's very good news for those communities. And a number of other towns have adopted declarations of inclusion and similar statements about their community through the Select Board. And then there were a number of items regarding climate change, in funding for open space, and preservation of open space and those kinds of things.
I know that last year a lot of towns had to shift away from the traditional Town Meeting Day format, where residents come together and discuss and debate and then all vote in person. And we moved towards ballot voting in order to stay safe during the pandemic. I'm interested if that trend continued this year, and how many towns voted via ballot versus holding traditional meetings?
According to the survey that we did just before Town Meeting Day, 75% of towns used Australian ballots this year. There were 40 towns that had held in-person meetings. So I think that this experience from last year and this year, in terms of participation, is really engendering a pretty substantial conversation about what is the best way to move forward in towns.
The participation is impressive on Australian ballots. The discussion and ability to amend measures and to really inform yourself about what is going on with the ballot is really cherished by Vermonters. So I really hope that we're able to come up with some system where you can combine the best of both worlds — the floor-involved, hands-on discussion and debate, and the participation. I don't know what the answer is yet, but I hope we find one.
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