Some 175 of Vermont’s 246 municipalities are ready to cast pandemic-safe ballots this town meeting season. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

For a second year, the Covid-19 pandemic is changing Vermont’s traditional March Town Meeting season from northwestern Alburgh to southeastern Vernon, with almost 75% of the state’s 246 municipalities replacing shoulder-to-shoulder decision-making with mailable ballots.

All 28 cities and towns with 5,000 or more residents and 146 smaller communities are trading in-person for on-paper proceedings — and, in many cases, supplementary online information sessions — to vote on local leaders, spending and special articles, according to a VTDigger survey. 

Some 40 towns, for their part, are aiming to hold some sort of gathering on or around the first Tuesday in March.

Kirby, population 575, is set to gavel in its annual town hall meeting, decide whether to elect moderator John McClaughry for the 56th time (a yet-to-be-disproven state record) and then adjourn until locals can swing the doors wide open in May to figuratively and literally air things out.

Granby, whose population of 81 is the state’s second smallest after neighboring Victory’s 70, plans to debate its entire agenda — in part because only a dozen of its 50 registered voters usually show up.

“We have a small population and a big building, so we can easily go along with tradition,” Granby Town Clerk Sheryl Brown said.

Another 30 towns are postponing proceedings until it’s warm enough to open windows, move outdoors or, in the case of Tunbridge, invite its population of 1,337 to the town’s fairgrounds.

(A list of how and when municipalities are deciding local matters appears at the end of this story.)

Compounding the changes: Not all communities and their school districts are voting on the same day. As a result, officials are urging Vermonters to check with local clerks about the timing of all elections.

As for other trends, several big municipalities that traditionally cast ballots are requesting big money, while most small towns, canceling meetings because of Covid, are limiting spending to the basics.

“The Selectboard decided to wait for any major changes until there can be a floor discussion,” East Montpelier Town Clerk Rosie Laquerre said of her town, which isn’t holding its usual sugaring-season meeting and potluck.

Hand sanitizer and face masks are a new staple at municipal offices this pandemic-era town meeting season. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Local marijuana sales, other heady questions

A request to allow the local sale of marijuana will appear on ballots in more than 40 municipalities, including Barre City, Bolton, Bristol, Castleton, Chester, Derby, Eden, Essex, Fair Haven, Fayston, Ferrisburgh, Grand Isle, Hardwick, Hartford, Leicester, Manchester, Marlboro, Middlesex, Milton, Moretown, Mount Holly, New Haven, Norton, Pittsford, Poultney, Proctor, Putney, Richford, Rockingham, Rutland City, Rutland Town, Sheldon, Springfield, St. Albans Town, Stockbridge, Stratton, Vernon, Waitsfield, Wallingford, Wilmington, Wolcott and Woodstock.

Vermont became the 11th state to legalize such businesses, although the 2020 law requires communities to “opt in” in order for retailers to seek the proper permitting. At least 33 cities and towns have already approved such sales in the past two years.

Moving to money matters, the 28 Vermont municipalities with 5,000 or more residents are asking for a collective $100 million in special bond requests above and beyond their regular budgets.

The state’s largest city of Burlington will ask voters to approve two separate articles totaling almost $50 million.

The first calls for the city to pledge its credit for a $25.9 million plan to upgrade Main Street along the six blocks between South Union and Battery streets, with work on storm-water systems, utilities, lighting and parking ultimately to be paid for by future tax revenues.

A second $23.8 million bond would replace fire trucks and emergency communication systems, repair 10 city-owned facilities and nine miles of sidewalks and allocate matching funds for ongoing or upcoming capital projects. Its price tag is down from a $40 million proposal rejected in a December special election.

In the state capital of Montpelier, an annual budget proposal that would raise taxes 6.8% will appear on the same ballot as four bond requests totaling more than $27 million. They include:

— $16.4 million to upgrade sewer treatment systems at the city’s water resource recovery facility.

— $7.2 million to reconstruct East State Street and its water and sewer distribution system.

— $2 million to purchase the 138-acre former site of the Elks Club on Country Club Road for potential housing, recreation and other uses.

— $1.8 million for infrastructure projects, including a pellet boiler at the public works garage, street light replacements and intersection improvements at Barre and Main streets.

A voter casts an absentee ballot in advance of March Town Meeting Day. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Big bonds elsewhere 

Vergennes will vote on a $25.5 million upgrade to its wastewater collection and treatment system, with up to half that cost to be paid for with state and federal funds (including the American Rescue Plan Act) estimated at between $8 million to $13 million.

Colchester will reconsider a $16.7 million Malletts Bay sewer project it rejected in 2019. This time, the plan to service 289 properties will be paid for by user fees and grant money, including $5.1 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan.

Milton will vote on a $5.5 million bond for a new town highway garage, with an additional $1 million coming from American Rescue Plan Act money and proceeds from the sale of the old fire station.

Stowe will vote on a $4 million infrastructure improvement bond for the town Electric Department, although the cost would be paid for by power users rather than taxpayers.

Fairfax will consider a $1.17 million addition to its fire station.

And Winooski, where all residents will be able to cast local ballots regardless of citizenship status, will weigh a $1.3 million bond to replace its 25-year-old 70-foot ladder fire truck with a new 100-foot model.

Many regular budgets in the state’s largest population hubs are rising, too. Williston will vote on a $13.1 million budget proposal that’s up 13.6%, with about half the hike paying for nine more firefighters to offset a drop in on-call staff — a problem that made national news when local firefighters responding to a recent emergency could not find replacements, leaving their station empty for almost an hour.

Brattleboro is giving residents “Thank You for Voting” pencils this town meeting season. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Small town spending, advisory articles

Although most small towns are limiting spending, several are proposing large projects.

Rutland Town wants to replace its fire station with a $4.1 million public safety building, with funding coming from a $2 million bond, $1.2 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money and some $850,000 from a capital project reserve account.

Windsor will vote on two infrastructure improvement bonds: $2 million for water and sewer upgrades and $1 million for road work.

Manchester also is proposing two bonds: one for $1.27 million to improve its public water distribution system and another for $1.9 million to expand its sewer system along Route 7A.

Guilford will consider a $205,000 request to help pay for $1 million in local library improvements.

Marlboro is asking to increase its general fund budget from $300,000 to $420,000 to create a town administrator position and give its municipal employees a 10% raise.

And Goshen will consider not only a $214,700 highway budget but also a citizen-petitioned article to spend an additional $621,000 to pave Town Hill Road.

“They want the roads fixed now,” Goshen Town Clerk Rosemary McKinnon said of the latter request.

Several communities will weigh advisory articles.

Manchester and several neighboring towns will vote on whether to support the concept of a $13.5 million regional fieldhouse.

Wheelock, facing accessibility issues at its town hall, will consider whether to explore an addition ranging in price from $980,000 to $1.5 million.

Highgate will offer its opinion on whether to keep its current emergency medical services provider, the nonprofit Missisquoi Valley Rescue that served up to 2017 and since 2019, or AmCare Ambulance Service, which received a two-year contract in the time between.

And Dummerston and Marlboro will decide whether to urge the Windham County Sheriff’s Office to not cite, arrest nor take custody of someone based on immigration status and to not assist federal officials with such enforcement.

A repurposed mailbox collects March town meeting ballots. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Municipal government, school matters

In other municipal matters:

Burlington will consider a proposed charter change to remove city council authority to regulate sex workers, specifically by eliminating current language “to restrain and suppress houses of ill fame and disorderly houses, and to punish common prostitutes and persons consorting therewith.”

Fair Haven, Montgomery and Woodstock will vote on whether to join some 20 other communities in assessing a 1% local option sales tax, while Barre City will consider a proposed charter change to expand its local option tax to include the sales tax.

Lyndon and Poultney each will explore whether to merge their separate town and village governments.

North Hero will weigh if it should take ownership of the newly restored Community Hall and move its town offices there, while Sutton will decide whether to sell its Grange building.

And Greensboro will debate whether to reduce the speed limit on all dirt roads to 35 miles per hour.

In education matters:

Six central Vermont school districts (Barre Unified Union, Cabot, Harwood Unified, Montpelier Roxbury, Twinfield Unified Union and Washington Central Unified Union) will consider whether to create a separate district to govern their shared Central Vermont Career Center (formerly the Barre Regional Vocational Technical Center).

Chelsea is set to vote on whether to withdraw from the First Branch Unified District, while Johnson will consider leaving the Lamoille North Modified Unified Union School District.

Coventry will weigh a $3.2 million bond for a proposed addition at its Village School to accommodate increasing enrollment and create a separate space for grades 6 through 8.

And Castleton will vote on whether to close its Village School, while neighboring Hubbardton, which has a contracted 11% interest in the Castleton school’s operation, will ask its own voters whether their town should acquire an 11% ownership stake in the building if it’s closed.

Several towns may join a growing trend to professionalize their governance structures, be it by replacing volunteers with paid experts, hiring a town manager, appointing rather than electing support staff, removing policing powers from elected constables or eliminating antiquated posts.

Hancock and Hyde Park, for example, will vote on whether to move from elected citizen listers to appointed professional appraisers.

In the same vein, Lincoln will vote on changing its treasurer position from elected to appointed, while Westfield will weigh whether to eliminate its office of town auditor.

“We can’t find people to fill this position,” Westfield Town Clerk LaDonna Dunn said, “so the voters will decide if it’s time to hire a professional.”

A stack of printed annual reports await voters this town meeting season. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

What about where, how and when?

Although almost three-quarters of Vermont municipalities will replace March Town Meeting rituals with ballots, about 40 are set to resume in-person gatherings and another 30 are rescheduling local debate and decisions until spring.

Towns set to hold some sort of meeting include Albany, Arlington, Barnard, Bloomfield, Braintree (“no lunch though!” Town Clerk Jessica Brassard said), Brighton, Canaan, Charleston, Chelsea, Danby, Derby, Eden, Glover, Goshen, Irasburg, Lemington, Morgan, Mount Holly, Mount Tabor, Norton, Orange, Poultney, Readsboro, Ryegate, Sandgate, Searsburg, Stamford, Stratton, Sutton, Troy, Whiting, Williamstown, Winhall and Woodford.

Another 30 towns are postponing proceedings to when it’s warm enough to open windows or move outdoors, including Baltimore (June 7), Barnet (April 25), Belvidere (June 7), Brookfield (May 21), Brownington (March 22), Cavendish (March 28-29), Corinth (May 17), Dover (tentatively mid-May), Granville (May 17), Halifax (May 3), Holland (May 21), Jamaica (April 2), Londonderry (April 30), Lowell (May 21), Ludlow (April 4-5), Pittsfield (May 3), Ripton (May 9-10), Rochester (March 28), Sheffield (May 17), Stannard (May 10), St. George (April 30), Stockbridge (March 22), Sudbury (date to be determined), Topsham (tentatively March 26), Tunbridge (May 21), Wardsboro (May 21), Waterford (tentatively April), Waterville (June 7), Vershire (May 22) and Weston (April 5).

Adding to the confusion: Municipalities and their school districts aren’t necessarily voting on the same day or in the same way.

Vernon, for example, is set to cast ballots on local leaders, its school budget and two marijuana questions March 1 and then consider the rest of its agenda at an outdoor meeting May 1.

Westminster, for its part, will vote on some articles March 1 and decide the rest at a meeting April 30, either inside a bay of its fire station or in a backyard across the street, depending on the weather.

As a result, election officials are urging Vermonters to check both the timing of all municipal and school meetings and votes and whether they must request an absentee ballot or will receive one automatically.

Communities hoped to return to business as usual this winter before the state’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,” says a temporary state law allowing meeting changes, “while also continuing to exercise their right to participate in annual municipal meetings.”

The legislation permits online public information hearings but mostly prohibits official town meetings on video conferencing platforms out of concern that organizers don’t have the ability to open participation to all locals yet close it to outsiders who aren’t 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 can limit Zoom participation to official members and let everyone else watch on public access television.)

Because of all the changes, many community ballots are sticking to the basics.

“Nothing newsworthy in Victory,” Town Clerk Tracey Martel said in Vermont’s smallest town.

And yet that, amid a pandemic and polarizing politics, is a headline in itself.

Communities voting on paper this Town Meeting season are:

Alburgh, Andover, Bakersfield, Barre City, Barre Town (which also holds an annual meeting in May), Barton, Bennington, Benson, Berkshire, Berlin, Bethel, Bolton, Bradford, Brandon, Brattleboro (which also holds an annual meeting later in March), Bridgewater, Bridport, Bristol, Brookline, Brunswick, Burke, Burlington, Cabot, Calais, Cambridge, Castleton, Charlotte, Chester, Chittenden, Clarendon, Colchester, Concord, Cornwall, Coventry, Craftsbury, Danville, Dorset, Dummerston, Duxbury, East Haven, East Montpelier, Elmore, Enosburgh, Essex, Fairfax, Fairfield, Fair Haven, Fairlee, Fayston, Ferrisburgh, Fletcher, Franklin, Georgia, Grafton and Grand Isle.

Also, Greensboro, Groton, Guildhall, Guilford, Hancock, Hardwick, Hartford, Hartland, Highgate, Hinesburg, Hubbardton, Huntington, Hyde Park, Ira, Isle La Motte, Jericho, Johnson, Killington, Landgrove, Leicester, Lincoln, Lunenburg, Lyndon, Maidstone, Manchester, Marlboro, Marshfield, Middlebury, Middlesex, Middletown Springs, Milton, Monkton, Montgomery, Montpelier, Moretown, Morristown, Newark, Newbury, Newfane, New Haven, Newport City, Newport Town, Northfield, North Hero, Norwich, Orwell, Panton, Pawlet, Peacham, Peru, Pittsford, Plainfield, Plymouth, Pomfret and Proctor.

Also, Putney, Randolph, Reading, Richford, Richmond, Rockingham, Roxbury, Royalton, Rupert, Rutland City, Rutland Town, Salisbury, Shaftsbury, Sharon, Shelburne, Sheldon, Shoreham, Shrewsbury, South Burlington, South Hero, Springfield, St. Albans City, St. Albans Town, Starksboro, St. Johnsbury, Stowe, Strafford, Sunderland, Swanton, Thetford, Tinmouth, Townshend, Underhill, Vergennes, Victory, Waitsfield, Walden, Wallingford, Waltham, Warren, Washington, Waterbury, Weathersfield, Wells, West Fairlee, Westfield, Westford, West Haven, Westmore, West Rutland, West Windsor, Weybridge, Wheelock, Whitingham, Williston, Wilmington, Windham, Windsor, Winooski, Wolcott, Woodbury, Woodstock and Worcester.

VTDigger's Brattleboro reporter.