Politics

Legislature adopts slate of pandemic-year municipal meeting precautions

The Vermont Legislature is adopting a slate of pandemic precautions related to municipal meetings. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

The Vermont Legislature has passed a slate of pandemic-year bills so communities can make changes for the 2022 town meeting season and gather municipal governing boards solely online.

The House this week adopted the Senate-passed S.222, which temporarily drops a requirement that public boards offer a physical meeting space with at least one official present, even if everyone else is attempting to avoid Covid-19 by plugging into video conference platforms.

“During the continued spread of coronavirus,” the bill stated, “public bodies should organize and hold open meetings in a manner that will protect the health and welfare of the public while providing access to the operations of government.”

Proponents have told lawmakers that electronic meetings can boost public participation, as happened when such sessions were permitted without restriction during Gov. Phil Scott’s pandemic state of emergency from March 2020 to June 2021.

In a related bill, the House also adopted the Senate-passed S.223, which suspends requirements for local candidates to file petitions to place their names on March 2022 ballots.

Under the temporary legislation, residents seeking local office only have to file a “consent of candidate form” with their town or city clerk to meet deadlines as early as Jan. 24 for the March 1 ballot.

S.223 also gives school district leaders flexibility when asked to commingle 2022 votes from multiple communities

“The ballots may be counted by each member town and the results reported to the school district clerk for determination of the official district-wide results,” the bill stated.

With House and Senate passage, S.222 and S.223 now go to the governor for his signature.

The two bills moved forward days after lawmakers adopted a third piece of legislation, S.172, to allow the state’s 246 municipalities to replace March 2022 town meetings with Covid-safe mailable secret ballots or warm-weather gatherings. 

Some 80% of communities used a similar temporary state law in 2021 to replace shoulder-to-shoulder decision-making with ballot voting. Most of the rest tapped the same legislation to reschedule proceedings until meeting attendees could open windows or move outdoors in the spring.

Municipalities hoped to return to business as usual this winter, but that was before Vermont’s coronavirus cases hit record highs with the arrival of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. 

“The citizens of Vermont should be able to protect their health, safety and welfare,” S.172 stated, “while also continuing to exercise their right to participate in annual municipal meetings.”

The latter legislation permits online public information hearings but mostly prohibits official town meetings on video conferencing platforms out of concern that organizers do not have the ability to open participation to all locals, yet close it to outsiders who are not eligible to vote.

Brattleboro is the only locality the state has allowed to debate and make decisions electronically, as its one-of-a-kind meeting of elected representatives is the only one that can limit Zoom participation to official members and let everyone else watch on public access television.

The 2022 changes are not expected to affect Vermont’s 28 cities and towns with 5,000 or more people, as they annually vote for local leaders, spending and special articles using Australian ballots. 

But most of the 218 communities with smaller populations traditionally hold some sort of town meeting, which must be warned at least 30 days in advance — this Jan. 30 for those seeking to take municipal action on the traditional first Tuesday in March.

Last year, a majority of towns and villages heeded a state recommendation that “meetings are strongly discouraged” and traded sugaring-season debate for mailable ballots or outdoor gatherings in April, May and June.

Only five communities — Addison, Kirby, Norton, Stratton and Woodford — held in-person meetings in March 2021, with each having little on the agenda or being gaveled in for the sole purpose of adjourning to a later date.

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Kevin O'Connor

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