Brattleboro successfully hosts virtual town meeting

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BRATTLEBORO — Behind computers and other electronic devices, more than 100 Town Meeting representatives participated in the annual meeting held remotely for the first time and it wasn't a disaster.

"I want to express my gratitude and astonished pleasure at being at a meeting chaired by you, Mr. Moderator," Chris Chapman of District 1 said near the meeting's end. "You did a super job. After 11-and-a-half hours, you make it look easy."

Lawrin Crispe, moderator, credited town officials behind the scenes for the smooth process. Gathered with him at the Municipal Center were Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland, Executive Secretary Jan Anderson and Town Clerk Hilary Francis.

Saturday's meeting started via Zoom at about 8:30 a.m. and concluded at about 9:20 p.m. Brattleboro is the first community in Vermont to remotely hold an annual town meeting.

"We're going to have to be patient with each other and have a good sense of humor," Kate O'Connor of District 3, said at the onset.

Although participants had varying audio quality while speaking, communication didn't appear to be an issue. Voting results were read within two minutes of calling the question, with tallies being kept through the videoconferencing software. Members of the public were asked to call in by phone or watch via Brattleboro Community Television to avoid confusion about voting. The first 10 warned articles were approved by noon Saturday. Reps quickly ratified appointments of town officials and elected members of committees.

The approximately $18.4 million fiscal year 2021 budget was already approved by the Select Board in June as a one-time action allowed by the Vermont

Legislature due to a ban on holding large gatherings in the coronavirus pandemic. Brattleboro's annual meeting is usually held the third Saturday in March.

Defeated before lunch were three amendments proposed to change Select Board salaries from $5,000 for the chairperson and $3,000 for others to $25 an hour; $7,000 for chairperson and $5,000 for others; and $10,000 for chairperson and $8,000 for others. Some reps looked at the role of a board member as one of civic service and others argued that higher pay could spark more participation from those who earn less money.

Reps voted 109-7 in favor of the town transferring $223,000 from the unassigned General Fund balance to fund a portion of a new fire engine to replace one made in 1994, which Town Manager Peter Elwell described as being "well past its useful life." The remainder of the $550,000 price tag is covered under capital equipment in the FY21 budget.

Kurt Daims of District 2 called for saving the money for emergency purposes, especially for those involving the consequences of climate change. Other reps stressed the importance of having the apparatus.

Regarding the pandemic, Elwell said the town had unplanned expenses but revenues haven't been significantly affected. He acknowledged the potential for worse effects in the future but justified the purchase of the fire engine.

"We would suggest to this is a high priority and it is a prudent expense," he said.

Reps voted 76-42 in favor of appropriating $42,119 for the Brattleboro Community Marketing Initiative proposed by the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Brattleboro Alliance. Penniless Projects of South Newfane is running the Love Brattleboro campaign.

O'Connor, who also is executive director of the chamber, said the price tag represents 10 percent of what the town collected for in meals and rooms tax revenue last year. She encouraged reps to approve the funding for a second year to help local retailers.

At first, the campaign targeted people within driving distance and the LGBTQ+ community. After nonessential businesses were shut down for the state of emergency in March, the campaign started up again in June with a focus on marketing to northern Vermont.

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The hope is to continue the campaign with municipal funding in the future. Before the pandemic, Penniless Projects reported having a click-through rate on web links that was higher than the industry average.

Alex Fischer of District 2 suggested using funds to make marginalized individuals feel safer rather than marketing to them. Addressing concerns about a lack of outreach to local LGBTQ+ community members, O'Connor said more of an effort will be made in the future.

Select Board Chairman Tim Wessel urged reps to give the program another year before fully evaluating its success. He described the campaign as a way to bring the town and local merchants more revenue.

In a 98-18 vote, reps approved raising $80,000 through special assessments on downtown properties for DBA operations and projects.

"We have been very nimble," said Stephanie Bonin, DBA's executive director. "The current budget reflects lots of changes since COVID happened."

Her group helped get parklets set up in front of businesses shifting to more outdoor service and spearheaded a program called Everyone Eats, which allows area residents to get free meals from local restaurants and is being replicated in other communities statewide.

An article to provide $190,105 to 28 human service programs was amended to include more support. The town's Human Services Review Committee proposed allocating about 1 percent of the municipal budget to the programs when it considered funding requests before the pandemic.

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Reps voted 87-25 in favor of contributing an additional $20,236 to human services with a nonbinding recommendation to provide an increase of 10 percent to all organizations with some extra going to the Root Social Justice Center.

"The effects of the pandemic have been devastating on our community and have highlighted the need for these essential services," said Robin Morgan of District 2, who proposed the amendment.

Morgan also called for the full funding request for $7,000 to be approved for the Root, which she described as the only organization on the list to be led by Black community members, indigenous people and people of color. The group was proposed to get $5,250 under the article warned for the meeting.

Several reps raised concerns about not wanting to interfere with the committee's process.

In an 88-25 vote, reps rejected an amendment to an article on tax collection to say that no penalties or interest will be imposed for late tax payments due through June.

The town's board of abatement, which can reduce or remove property tax payments, "imagined it would be a busy abatement season and it really wasn't," said Select Board member Ian Goodnow.

Budgeted revenue for FY21 includes about $60,000 in interest fees and about $55,000 in penalties. Both figures are consistent with property tax data from the last three years, said Select Board member Daniel Quipp.

"There are questions of equity that cut multiple ways," Elwell said, suggesting the town could have a cashflow issue if too many tax payments come in late.

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In support of the motion, board member Brandie Starr called for the town to provide aid when it can in a time of crisis. Quipp noted a mortgage assistance program is available through the state to help in the pandemic.

Reps quickly voted 82-25 in favor of contributing $36,147 to Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies from program income, a revolving loan fund that disperses proceeds originating as Vermont Community Development Block Grants.

They voted 100-3 for the town to raise and appropriate about $223,276 in special assessments for debt service on capital improvements on water and sewer lines in Mountain Home and Deepwood Mobile Home Parks. Only properties within a special district will be subject to the assessments.

An article petitioned by the Connecticut River Conservancy was unanimously approved by 99 reps. The town will adopt a resolution asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to require owners of the Wilder, Bellows Falls and Vernon dams to modify operations to "minimize peaking; provide for ongoing streambank monitoring, develop a shoreline adaptive management plan; and create a mitigation and enhancement fund to support riverbank restoration and/or property owner compensation to reimburse towns and landowners for any and all damages resulting from the deterioration of the riverbank."

In a 65-19 vote under other business at the end of the meeting, reps rejected a motion to have the article addressing other business after lunch next time. Other business is usually reserved for the end of the meeting but maintaining a quorum can be a challenge.

Before the meeting adjourned, a resolution encouraging the town to allocate 2 percent of the municipal budget to human services passed in a 47-25 vote.

Crispe acknowledged the hard work of American Sign Language interpreters and BCTV throughout the meeting.

Cor Trowbridge, executive director of BCTV, said her group started meeting with Moreland in the summer to understand the plan, their role and test the concept on Zoom.

Moreland "deserves the credit for researching, designing, testing and running the Zoom meeting so that all Town Meeting reps could speak and vote, and so that the public had access to participate by phone and by watching our broadcast or livestream," Trowbridge said. "BCTV's focus was on providing transparency to viewers, so our behind the scenes work was finding a way to display the voting results, and fine tuning our livestreaming method so that the image wouldn't freeze and the audio would remain in sync over a long period of time."

Once the meeting was up and running on Saturday, her group set the view to "video participants only," then started livestreaming. The meeting was shown on YouTube, Facebook and the television channel.

BCTV put up titles to identify what article was being discussed. They also added a banner reading "voting in progress" for the 90 seconds Crispe allowed for voting so viewers weren't left to wonder what was going on.

BCTV Production Manager Brian Bashaw and Content Manager Nolan Edgar streamed and directed the entire meeting from the station's office in the Municipal Center. Trowbridge said the Zoom meeting was displayed on a large monitor so Crispe could easily see who had their hand up to speak and how many had voted.

Trowbridge and another staff member recalled another 12- to 13-hour meeting in recent times and another one that was split into two days.

"So I would say that this length has become a trend over the last few years," she said.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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