Representative Town Meeting awaits a plan

Moderator Lawrin Crispe has Town Meeting members stand up to vote during annual Representative Town Meeting in 2018.

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BRATTLEBORO — Representative Town Meeting members who are involved in improving the annual gathering and making it more efficient learned a lot about its parameters from the town manager and town attorney. 

"It's sort of a peek behind the curtain for some of us," RTM Steering Committee Chairwoman Millicent Cooley said during an informational event held Wednesday.

Town Attorney Bob Fisher said much of the procedure is outlined in state law and the town charter. 

Members of the committee are coming up with recommendations, and some cost money, Cooley said. Town Manger Peter Elwell suggested coming to the Select Board by December or the first board meeting in January if an item is being requested to be added to the budget or as an article. 

Fisher said the Select Board warns and creates the annual meeting, adding articles it approves and ones properly petitioned by voters. The town clerk ensures the signatures on petitions are valid. Advisory articles require signatures from 5 percent of the voter checklist and articles to change ordinances need 10 percent. 

"A lot of times, somebody who cares deeply about an issue won't know the boundaries of what exactly has to happen under the law or exactly how the wording of the petition ought to be created in a way that it can properly be put before Town Meeting," Elwell said, encouraging those who want to petition for an article to appear at the meeting to confer with Town Clerk Hilary Francis before going out in the community in search of signatures. 

Town staff are tracking things in the community throughout the year to identify what might need to be on the warning for the annual meeting, Elwell said. Many articles are regularly occurring such as committee appointments and the human services funding, but some are unique, he said, citing the likely one coming next year to consider transferring ownership of Union Station to Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. 

The charter calls for the annual meeting to be held the third Saturday of March but allows for the date to be changed via a vote at RTM, Fisher said. 

Responding to a question about whether Town Meeting members could bring up their plans to make motions not on the RTM warning at the informational meeting preceding the annual meeting, Fisher said it would be up to the Select Board because it runs the informational meeting. Elwell said issues cannot debated at the informational meeting. 

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With Town Meeting members starting to trickle out later in the meetings, especially after all the warned items are voted on and "new business" begins, there was a question about whether those absent could be considered to be abstaining from voting. Fisher said a quorum is still needed to conduct business. 

"The prohibition of transacting business in the absence of a quorum cannot be waived even by unanimous consent," he said. "Anybody who brings up a point of order questioning the existence of the quorum, that motion or point of order takes precedence at the meeting. The only action that you can take if there is not a quorum is to adjourn or adjourn to a certain date or to take action to try and obtain the quorum." 

One idea the committee is considering involves having a consent agenda in which traditionally uncontroversial items could be grouped together for a vote in order to save time. Fisher said he believes it could be done but Elwell sees value in getting the annual meeting into a groove so "procedural discomfort" dissipates by the time more complicated matters come up. 

Some of the suggestions coming up at committee meetings would require revisions to the town charter, Cooley said. The Select Board is required to appoint a charter review commission every 15 years and will need to do so again by 2023, then it meets as long as it needs to before making recommendations, Elwell said. 

Communication among Town Meeting members via email and social media has raised concerns about potentially violating Vermont's Open Meeting Law. Fisher has worried that an online thread could be considered having an unwarned meeting. 

"I think if it's going to be one-way communication, that's not going to be in violation of the meeting law," he said. "It's possible that we come up with our own rule as to how information gets disseminated." 

Town Meeting members are elected as a representative of their district and each district could meet on its own without violating any quorum rules, Francis said. 

Another informational hosted by the steering committee will include Town Moderator Lawrin Crispe.