By Brett Yates
Dozens of municipalities in Vermont took advantage this year of a new state law that, for 2021 only, permitted them to postpone their annual town meetings in order to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. These include five towns in Windsor County (Hartland, Sharon, Barnard, Weston, and Baltimore) and one in Rutland County (Sudbury).
Town meetings — where, by direct democracy, residents determine municipal budgets and policies, in addition to electing town officers — normally take place in March. By custom, business is conducted “from the floor,” with face-to-face discussion and votes by voice or show of hands, but in recent years, many towns have held plebiscites whereby residents have chosen to adopt the Australian ballot system, which doesn’t require all voters to be present at once. Covid-19 prompted the state to give select boards the option of switching temporarily to Australian ballots (also commonly known as secret ballots) without a townwide vote on the matter.
Like most of the state’s municipalities that held their town meetings on March 2, Hartland and Sharon have decided upon this route. Hartland’s town meeting will take place on May 4 and Sharon’s on May 8, with polls open until 7 p.m., though both towns have encouraged residents to vote by mail.
Hartland will host competitive races for town moderator, school moderator, and two Select Board seats (see story on page 4), alongside eight uncontested elections. Sharon residents will, among other articles, consider the potential acquisition of a 150-acre wooded parcel from the Alliance for Vermont Communities (AVC).
AVC bought the property in 2018 to thwart a Utah developer’s intentions of building a utopian community (based on a plan devised in 1833 by Mormon leader Joseph Smith) on the site, which straddles the towns of Sharon and Strafford. Strafford voted in March to take its portion of the land into municipal ownership, and if Sharon does the same in May (thereby forgoing $1,217 in annual tax revenue, per AVC), the expanse will become the Ashley Community Forest, a recreation area and wildlife habitat protected by a conservation easement. AVC would gift $20,000 for its joint management by the towns.
In Barnard, the Select Board on April 7 rejected a proposal to switch to Australian ballots for its town meeting, which will take place inside its town hall on May 15. “We’ll follow the in-place requirements of the state,” Assistant to the Select Board Rob Ramrath noted. “It’ll include masking and hand sanitizing and logging-in and distancing and so forth.”
Barnard’s agenda includes a proposition to replace the town’s board of listers — an elected trio that assesses local property values on behalf of the municipal tax collector — with a contracted appraiser. Two of Barnard’s listers recently retired. “It’s difficult to get people on boards, and the lister’s position is particularly technical,” Ramrath explained.
If voters agree to the change, Barnard will follow in the recent footsteps of several other Vermont municipalities, such as Pittsford, which voted to professionalize the role at its town meeting last year. There, a similar series of resignations had led local officials to wonder whether, in the words of town manager John Haverstock, it made “sense to continue with the elected lister, given that there’s so much more complexity to the job than a hundred years ago,” with “lots of state mandates and lots of computer-savvy requirements.”
Like Barnard, Weston plans to hold a traditional town meeting, except that, for safety, the May 25 event will take place on the village green, using tents if necessary. “We have no idea what the protocols are going to be for late May,” Selectboard Vice Chair Jim Linville acknowledged, but he hopes that the outdoor setting will allow Weston to continue its custom of serving homemade soups and sandwiches (prepared by parents at the adjacent Little School) to attendees.
In Windsor County’s smallest town, Baltimore, town meeting will take place on June 1. Baltimore has not yet publicized an agenda or format for the meeting.
The same goes for Sudbury in Rutland County, but the town clerk, Steve Sgorbati, predicted that “nothing special” will be on the agenda for the June 26 town meeting. “The amount to be raised by taxes is going down by $80,000,” so the municipal budget won’t likely generate much controversy, he pointed out. The meeting will take place on the town green unless rain moves the event indoors.
Sudbury is the only town in Rutland County with a delayed town meeting, but Clarendon, which held its town meeting on March 2, will host a special election on May 18 to fill one of its four seats on the 11-member Mill River Union School District Board. In April, the school board controversially chose an interim appointee after a vacancy emerged within Clarendon’s delegation in March, against the wishes of Clarendon’s Select Board, which believed that the town, not the school board, should have authority over the matter.
Two candidates, Andrea Hawkins and Carol Geery, vied for the school board’s consideration, with Hawkins winning the temporary appointment. The special election will allow Clarendon’s voters to choose between Hawkins and Geery for a one-year term.