Tradition vs. Participation: Towns Struggle to Keep Town Meeting Relevant

Wolcott holds a traditional Town Meeting the first Tuesday in March. However multiple paper ballots mean the meeting can stretch for hours on end. Amy Kolb Noyes photo

Wolcott holds a traditional Town Meeting the first Tuesday in March. However multiple paper ballots can make the meeting stretch for hours on end, limiting participation.
Amy Kolb Noyes photo

When and how does your town hold town meeting? There was a time when the answer to that question was pretty much the same throughout Vermont. Town meeting was held the first Tuesday in March. It started mid-morning, after barn chores, and often ended with a potluck lunch. But that’s not always the case anymore. Each year towns struggle with ways to make annual meetings accessible to voters who work, often out of town, and can’t take the day off.

Every year the issue comes up in at least a handful of towns throughout the state. Towns have tried Saturday meetings, evening meetings, splitting the town and school district meetings, and asking some or all questions via the Australian ballot system, where polls are open throughout the day and into the evening.

For example, on March 5, town meeting voters in Monkton will be asked to consider splitting town meeting next year, with the polls open on the first Tuesday in March to address Australian ballot articles, and all other articles to be discussed and voted upon at a meeting the prior Saturday.

Meanwhile, voters in Shrewsbury will consider moving town meeting to the Saturday prior to the first Tuesday in March, as well. However, in Shrewsbury voters will also consider doing away with Australian balloting, thus allowing all town meeting articles  to be discussed from the floor of the meeting. Such discussion is prohibited the day of voting via Australian ballot.

Brattleboro has done away with a town-wide meeting altogether. Instead, the town elects town meeting members to attend a representative town meeting. That system has been in place since 1960 in Brattleboro.

When and how does your town hold town meeting? Is a change to that system under consideration this year? Leave a comment below and let us know.