Representative Town Meeting goes remote

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BRATTLEBORO — Town officials are preparing to host annual Representative Town Meeting virtually after months of exploring the best way to proceed since the March event was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

At a special meeting Tuesday, the Select Board asked town staff to prepare a warning to hold the meeting via Zoom on Sept. 12 and 13. The warning will be considered at the next board meeting next Tuesday.

A group — made up of Town Manager Peter Elwell, Executive Secretary Jan Anderson, Assistant Town Clerk Patrick Moreland, Town Clerk Hilary Francis, Town Attorney Bob Fisher and Town Moderator Lawrin Crispe — looked at various options before coming to the decision to go remote.

One idea involved "pods," where small groups of Town Meeting members would meet in different spots and be connected via Brattleboro Community Television. That would require a lot of work around technical logistics and could create bigger gatherings than people are comfortable with, Elwell said.

Another plan included an informational meeting where Town Meeting members would talk about the articles then vote via Australian ballot on another day.

A survey in which 133 out of 138 Town Meeting members responded came back with 35 percent opposing the "pods" proposal and 25 percent opposing the ballot, Elwell said. Town staff recommended hosting the meeting virtually and with Zoom instead of GoToMeeting, the teleconferencing software used for Select Board meetings.

Zoom allows participants to raise their hands, a feature Elwell described as "very important" given the anticipated attendance. The software also allows participants to vote, with the tally coming up on the meeting organizer's screen.

Ensuring only Town Meeting members vote is one concern.

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"We don't have that solved yet," Elwell said, "but we believe that it can be addressed satisfactorily."

Another worry is the potential for connectivity or technical issues.

Based on the survey results, Elwell said 16 Town Meeting members will need some kind of technical assistance. He mentioned Brooks Memorial Library has loaner computer equipment to share and community members have expressed a willingness to help.

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Elwell called the survey response rate "unheard of" and "totally amazing."

"This is the time, in a pandemic, where we should take a moment and get as much information as we can to uphold the democratic principles that this town is founded on, and we did that," board member Ian Goodnow said. "I really feel confident now that we've talked to everybody, that we can now move forward as a board and make an informed decision."

Citing recent board meetings held remotely and lasting up to six hours, board member Daniel Quipp suggested holding the meeting over two days rather than one.

"It's hard on the body and the mind," he said. "I just think this kind of meeting is very draining and after a while, you kind of get glazed over like a doughnut."

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Crispe, the moderator, said he always aims to have the meeting completed in one day because a recess could risk the exclusion of some members. He worries that hosting the meeting on Zoom will leave some people out.

Oscar Heller said for Town Meeting members like himself, one long meeting is less of an inconvenience.

"Not a deal breaker — I'm fine with whatever ends up happening — just want to represent that point of view but also say that a 13-hour in-person meeting last time also was pretty rough," he said. "My eyes glazed over plenty of times there."

Francis, town clerk, said 78 members will need to be present to have a quorum.

The budget already was adopted so discussion might be limited, Crispe said. Select boards were given special authority from the Legislature this year to approve budgets if communities were unable to vote on spending plans due to restrictions on gathering sizes.

Articles on the warning will ask about funding for a firetruck, the community marketing initiative created by the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance and Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies and human service organizations. Appointments for town clerk, town attorney and treasurer will be considered as will elections of committee members and library trustees.

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


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