Town getting closer to setting Town Meeting date

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Editor's Note: This story was edited at 1 p.m. on July 9.

BRATTLEBORO — The town's Select Board, still uncertain about how to proceed with its delayed Town Meeting, is hoping to poll its more than 150 Town Meeting Representatives to determine if they are able to participate virtually.

"The proposed alternative includes an informational discussion meeting via GoToMeeting on Saturday, Aug. 22, followed by the casting of votes by an Australian ballot to be delivered (or postmarked) no later than Aug. 28," states information handed to the Select Board prior to the meeting.

Town Manager Peter Elwell said a team looked at options to conduct Town Meeting, including creating "pods" of 30 or so Town Meeting Representatives who could be connected with the assistance of BCTV.

"Some elected representatives to Town Meeting would not feel comfortable being part of a gathering of that many people who are not part of the same household," said Elwell.

Instead, he said, the informational meeting could be conducted via an online conference platform and Town Meeting members would receive ballots they could fill out and either mail in or put in a drop box behind the Brattleboro Municipal Building.

"We find it not very satisfying to make this recommendation to you," said Elwell. But he said this is "the only reliable way" to insure all meeting reps can vote on the 20 or so articles.

Town Moderator Lawren Crispe said he supports the proposal presented at the Board meeting because it balances fundamental democratic principles with protecting the health of RTM members.

"These are extremely challenging times and we all know that," he said. "There is no great solution."

"We all see this as the least bad option at the moment," said Select Board Chairman Tim Wessel.

One major drawback to this method is that meeting reps won't be able to make motions to amend any of the articles, as they have in the past.

"Town Meeting is supposed to be a deliberative body," said Town Meeting Representative Fhar Miess. "Not being able to make any amendments or motions fundamentally changes the character of Town Meeting."

Town Meeting Representative Oscar Heller said he was also under the impression that reps would get to weigh in on the budget, even after the Board approved it at its July 16 meeting.

"I understand the town is in a tough spot and none of the options are great," said Heller. "But now, one of the budget items has tons of debate and really strong feelings about it."

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Heller was referring to the police budget and calls to "defund," or reallocate the police department's funding.

"The budget has already been approved," said Elwell.

This one-time vote conducted by the Select Board at its June 16 meeting was taken under special authority granted by the Vermont Legislature. Because Town Meeting was delayed this year, said Elwell, if the Board had not adopted the budget, the town would not have the authority to appropriate funds for the new fiscal year, which began July 1.

"People are talking about the budget, vis-a-vis the police department," said Wessel. "This Board made a pledge to speak about a police review process that is open and fair. That is the next order of business."

Board member Elizabeth McLoughlin said the Board, with the information it had in March, acted in good faith when it made its decision to postpone RTM.

"Town Meeting would have been a super spreader event," she said. "We are forgetting what it was like, just in March."

Since then, said McLoughlin, "George Floyd was murdered."

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"We, as a Select Board, addressed that," she said. "We took a vote on the budget as the Legislature allowed and we said we want to have an examination of police policies."

Review of the police budget begins "now," said McLoughlin, with the process getting underway and as the Board is getting ready to begin the budgeting process for the next fiscal year beginning July 1, 2021.

"Everybody has to live with that," she said, while the review process is under way. She said town staff and the Board can provide "sufficient oversight ... at this time."

It's disappointing, said Starr, because "People can't vote on the thing we know they are fired up about."

Board members Daniel Quip it was his understanding when they cast their votes that meeting reps would get to weigh in during Representative Town Meeting, whenever that happened to be. Board Member Ian Goodnow agreed it was unclear if the reps would get to vote on the budget.

But Wessel said from what he could recall of that meeting, it was uncertain if meeting reps would have that opportunity.

"Both of you are correct," said Elwell. "We didn't know for sure how RTM was going to evolve. ... It was also unequally clear to us if the budget matter was a finished action."

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Meeting reps can vote on a number of separate articles that are related to the budget, said Elwell. If reps vote no on those articles, such as the one appropriating funds for human services agencies in Brattleboro and the county, the money will remain in the budget but the payment won't be made.

"This is an inadequate solution," said Miess. He recommended the Board consider a non-binding vote allowing reps to cast a vote of confidence, or no-confidence, on the Board's approval of the budget.

Wessel said meeting reps can hold such a vote, but it would be non-bonding, and advisory only.

Other virtual participants asked if the Board could vote not to expend money on certain line items, such as items in the police budget.

"It is my understanding that the Select Board has the authority to adjust levels of service and spend less than is authorized in the budget," wrote Elwell in an email to the Reformer on Wednesday.

But Wessel told the Reformer, also on Wednesday, the targeting of the town's police budget without a full examination of all town priorities is "ill-informed, unwise and anti-democratic, and would actually derail the excellent progress we have made with the police force in my hometown."

He said now that Brattleboro is in fiscal year 2021, "We won't be taking up any consideration of altering our police budget until we have a full conversation about our community's desires for the role of policing and social services in Brattleboro. That's exactly what we're trying to do with our Police Review Committee, and the discussion of what exact structure that will take will be continuing on July 21.

During the Tuesday night meeting, Bob Fisher, attorney for the town, said there is a simple remedy for those disappointed in the Select Board — vote to replace them during the next election cycle.

Board members asked Elwell to conduct a poll of Town Meeting Representatives and get back to them with the results at the next board meeting on July 14.

In other business, Kurt Daims urged the Board to pen a letter to the Legislature urging it to approve changes to the Town Charter that open voting to town residents who are 16 and 17 years old.

"The amendment was approved by a huge majority in 2019," said Daims, who is a town meeting rep. "Everybody needs to recognize that this not any longer a matter of youth activism ... Now it is our policy and mandate. We, as town officials, owe it to the voters, and not just to the young people, to pursue this and get it approved in the [Legislature]."

Elwell noted the charter change is being reviewed by the House Committee on Government Operations.

The Board also approved the winning bid of $98,760 by Neil Daniels, Inc., of Ascutney, to replace the Reservoir Trail culvert and a $100,000, no-interest, 15-year loan from the town's revolving loan fund to Brattleboro Housing Partnership in support of its Red Clover Commons 2 Project.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


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