The Waitsfield Select Board rejected a proposal to hold a special meeting this fall for voters to weigh in on whether to begin voting the town budget by Australian ballot versus from the floor of Town Meeting each spring.
The board, at its August 10 meeting, heard the final report from a Town Meeting Study Group that was appointed after Town Meeting in 2014. The group surveyed town voters about Town Meeting participation in an effort to learn what might increase participation.
While the board declined to warn a specific meeting to follow up on that specific recommendation from the group, it did indicate that there was support for three other recommendations.
FROM THE FLOOR
Those recommendations include moving the start time of Town Meeting from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a hard stop at 9 p.m.; voting from the floor on the budget at a pre-announced time so that even if people could not attend the entire meeting, they could show up to vote; and, finally, separating the school board meeting from the Town Meeting.
Group members Deri Meier, Suzanne Peterson and Nancy Turner were present to discuss their survey findings and recommendations with the board. Peterson said that the final report does not include another type of hybrid Town Meeting format that she learned about too late to include in the report.
With that hybrid model, used in Essex, voters show up and discuss the budget on Town Meeting Day making any changes from the floor. Then that budget is warned and voted on eight weeks later by Australian ballot.
CHANCE FOR INPUT
Meier explained that the model outlined in the final report called for discussing the ballot at a separate meeting prior to Town Meeting and then voting for it by Australian ballot with no amendments from the floor, or if there were amendments, they would be carried forward to the following year's budget.
"Any amendments would have to be in the form of items to come up in the subsequent years. One of the things that concerned me was two years ago there was almost an expenditure of $400,000 which was 30 or 40 percent of the town budget. That was a huge increase and it went down by a small margin, 17 votes. It seemed to me that the community didn't really have much of a chance for input. It was a total surprise that an amendment of that magnitude could be made from the floor," Meier said.
Peterson noted that not all committee members shared the same opinion on that point and noted that the issue of whether to vote budgets by Australian ballot had been debated at length at Town Meeting two years ago and did not pass.
"There were strong opinions on both sides," she said.
Meier countered that the 151 surveys, which represent 222 households, showed strong support (63 percent) for Australian ballot.
Board member Kari Dolan noted that that was 63 percent of 221 people in a town of 1,200 voters.
Dolan asked how other towns are succeeding in expanding participation in the democratic process.
"I'd question your use of the phrase 'democratic process.' You're excluding people who work during the day from participating," Meier said.
WRESTLING THROUGH BUDGETS
"I'm talking about moving it to evening to allow more people to participate. Maybe we don't need to move to Australian ballot so fast. That might solve the needs and still maintain the qualities that Town Meeting can offer and the neighborliness of wrestling through budgets," Dolan said.
Meier noted that only 11 percent of people attend Town Meeting and suggested it was an outdated way to conduct town business.
Peterson explained that when Middlesex went to afternoon/evening for Town Meeting they saw a bump of 50 to 75 more people so now 200 to 250 people attend the meeting and Meier concurred that going to an afternoon/evening meeting would bring an increase in voters.
A town resident asked the group members if the survey was specific in letting respondents know that moving to a straight Australian ballot budget vote (versus the hybrid used in Essex) would preclude the ability to amend the budget from the floor.
"They could still come to the pre-budget meetings," Turner said.
Board member Logan Cooke said that was just trading participation from one forum to another.
"I understand the benefits of greater participation, but what small sample of people should we listen to? The 221 people represented by the survey or the people voting at Town Meeting who turned this down? That is us revoting something that was already voted at Town Meeting. And any special Town Meeting you want to have in the fall is going to have the same lousy attendance. We'd be directly circumventing a decision that was made as a legal binding vote at Town Meeting two years ago," Cooke said.
Turner noted that under the current system only a small number of people committee the entire town to pay for a budget.
OPPORTUNITY TO VOTE
"It comes down to the opportunity to vote," Meier said.
"There was no consensus on the committee beyond the first three recommendations. We wanted the town to call a special meeting to discuss the issue beyond that," Peterson said.
The survey asked people if they attend Town Meeting and why they don't. It asked if people would attend a meeting that started at 4 p.m. with a hard stop at 9 p.m. and if they would support a fixed pre-announced time to vote on the budget. It asked whether the school board meeting should be separated and asked for suggestions on how to improve participation. Finally it asked whether people supported voting by Australian ballot for the town budget and asked if they would support a special evening meeting to vote on the matter.