Could pandemic further erode the New England town meeting?

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MIDDLESEX, Vermont (AP) – The town reunion, for centuries, has been a staple of life in New England – but the coronavirus pandemic could hasten the departure of the tradition where people come together to debate everything from the purchase of local road equipment to several million dollars. from dollar budgets to pressing social issues.

The basis of the town hall meeting is to bring everyone together in the same room – sometimes a town hall, sometimes a school gymnasium – where voters will discuss local issues until a decision is made.

The restrictions on in-person gatherings imposed by the pandemic make this impossible.

Some communities are delaying meetings this year until the virus is hopefully more under control. Others use pre-printed ballots to decide questions, foregoing the day-long debate altogether.

Some fear that the temporary workaround may remain even after life returns to normal.

“I would be very disappointed if people think this is a new model, as it would take us completely away from the essence of the town meeting, which is the opportunity to get together with our fellow voters, to to hear directly from our elected officials, to question, to challenge them, to debate a budget and public issues in an assembled meeting, ”said former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, who served for 33 years as as moderator in his hometown of Middlebury.

But others counter that the challenges of bringing people together during town meetings, virus or not, limit the number of people who can attend.

In Vermont, where the traditional Town Meeting Day – the first Tuesday in March – is a statutory holiday, the state has only allowed cities this year to decide local issues with pre-printed ballots. Most of the cities that have chosen this option have organized meetings ofinformation remotely to help voters make informed decisions.

In Middlesex, Vermont, voters on Tuesday will vote on a measure that, if approved, would allow the city to continue with pre-printed ballots to decide everything from credits for the local library to payments for programs social – but the city budget.

Vic Dwire, a longtime Middlesex resident, who supports the measure, said it would allow more people to vote.

“The point is, a lot of people think they can’t ask any questions at city meetings,” said Dwire, who is running for a seat on the Middlesex board this year. “It gives people a chance to participate in democracy and vote from 7 am to 7 pm”

But others think it would take something away from the process.

“We need empowered, face-to-face deliberations,” said Middlesex Town Hall Moderator Susan Clark.

Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos said he doesn’t take a position on the choices cities make about their meetings, but he understands why some are pushing for change.

Many people cannot attend traditional town meetings, which can last all day.

“They can live in one city and work in another city and it’s hard to take the time,” Condos said. “They can have kids, school, anything that interferes with their life. It’s not like it was 100 years ago.

In Maine, the pandemic wiped out town meetings last year for more than 400 of the state’s 486 municipalities that hold spring meetings. Thanks to an emergency order from the governor, many cities in Maine are once again using pre-printed secret ballots this year to make decisions.

Eric Conrad, of the Maine Municipal Association, said more people voted by secret ballot than attended previous traditional municipal meetings.

“This democratic compromise is lost. But participation is better, ”he said.

Municipal meetings evolved from the time when the first European settlers in this …

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