Brattleboro successfully hosts virtual town meeting

The meeting room in the Municipal Center was set up for virtually holding annual Representative Town Meeting on  Sept. 12, 2020.

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BRATTLEBORO — On Tuesday night, the Brattleboro Select Board reaffirmed its decision earlier this year to hold Representative Town Meeting in person in the gymnasium of Brattleboro Union High School.

“You will never please everyone,” said Board member Tim Wessel, before the board voted 3-2 to hold its first in-person Representative Town Meeting in three years.

Wessel, Board Chairman Ian Goodnow and Board member Elizabeth McLoughlin voted in favor of an in-person meeting and Board member Jessica Gelter and Board Vice-Chairman Daniel Quipp voted in favor of an online meeting.

During a previous meeting, the board settled on an in-person meeting, but that was before H. 42 was approved by the Legislature, which has yet to be signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott. The bill would give Brattleboro the option of hosting RTM totally online for the next two years.

“The vice chair and I had a discussion and believe that it was important to put this question before the board a second time, specifically about doing the meeting entirely remote or being in person fully,” said Goodnow. “And the reason being because we did not really discuss fully remote because at the time, it wasn’t something we could do.”

There are 152 Town Meeting member seats, which includes the members of the Select Board, the moderator, the town clerk and the town treasurer. The town’s three state representatives and the state senator who resides in Brattleboro also have seats at RTM.

At least 75 Town Meeting members have to show up on March 25 to establish a quorum capable of deciding on the more than two dozen articles on the warrant.

The town conducted an informal poll of RTM members as to what format they preferred. Town Clerk Hilary Francis said she received 69 responses from 133 emails sent out.

Of the responses, 15 said they would not attend an in-person meeting and nine said they would not attend an online meeting.

Francis explained the plan for RTM in the gymnasium, which calls for seating to allow for seats three feet apart and rows three feet apart as well. She also noted the school has a very robust HVAC system.

Francis said setting aside an area for those who would like to wear masks was considered, but they couldn’t set aside such an area “unless we get commitments from people and know exactly how many people are committing to being in a mask only section ...”

Instead, they decided to designate a “mask recommended area.”

Wessel suggested that all RTM members take a home COVID test before the meeting and Town Manager John Potter added that the town has plenty of tests on hand if someone wants to stop into Brooks Memorial Library to pick one up.

While Quipp said he was excited at the prospect of an in-person meeting, he had to consider his responsibility to insure people can participate “fully and safely.”

Holding an online meeting would be “the more responsible decision,” he said.

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Gelter said she has heard from people who won’t even run for a seat in RTM if it will be in person.

“I feel like having an in-person meeting would certainly disenfranchise these folks,” she said.

“The real question for me is where is our bar for upending our participatory, in-person tradition of democracy in this town?” asked Wessel. “I think the very success of Representative Town Meeting and, indeed, democracy in Brattleboro asks us to be in person if we can, and if we can’t, someone else should serve as a Representative Town Meeting member.”

Wessel noted that the Select Board has been meeting for some time without requiring masks.

RTM member Sonia Silbert took issue with Wessel’s comment.

“I’m kind of flabbergasted, Tim, by what you just said,” she said. “I feel like what I heard you just say is that if somebody in our town has disabilities or health needs, they shouldn’t run for Select Board. And I hope that’s not what you meant. But that’s what I just heard.”

“I think it’s a mischaracterization of what I was saying,” responded Wessel. “I’m perfectly okay if Sonia wants to think that that is what I meant. It is not what I meant.”

“That was a really hard thing to hear,” said Silbert. “Because I have some dear friends who would not be able to do what you all are doing and I think they would be really great leaders in our town.”

Francis said prospective RTM members must have their petitions with 10 signatures of people living in their district to her office by the 4:59 p.m. on Monday. But that’s not the only way they can throw their hats into the ring, she said.

In District One there are 14 seats available for three-year terms with eight names on the ballot. For the two-year term, there are eight seats available with only one name on the ballot. For the one-year term, there is one petition outstanding.

In District Two, there are 16 seats available with nine people on the ballot and three petitions out. For the two-year term there are two seats available with no names on the ballot and no petitions out. For the one-year seat there is one seat available with one petition out.

In District Three, there are 16 seats available with nine names on the ballot and three petitions out. For the two-year seat there are four spots available with one name on the ballot and two petitions out. For the one-year seat there are three positions available with two petitions out.

“But you should know that those two petitions are also people that took out for the three year and they’re trying to decide which they’re going to turn back in,” said Francis.

People can also run as write-ins, she said, but they have to notify her that they intend to do so before the close of polls on election day and they need to receive at least 10 votes.

“Or they can show up to the caucus and be appointed to a one year position,” said Francis.

Bob Audette can be contacted at