On January 19, 2021, Governor Scott signed H.48 (Act 1), which enables municipalities to adjust how and when to conduct this year’s annual meetings. The legislation addresses all of Vermont’s municipal entities – not just cities, towns, and villages, but school districts, incorporated schools, fire districts, incorporated villages, and other governmental incorporated units such as solid waste districts. Last year’s Act 162 enabled local legislative bodies to vote to temporarily move to an Australian ballot system of voting for the 2021 annual meeting in towns that vote from the floor. It also waived the requirements for voter signature collection for candidates in local elections. Act 1 goes further and addresses other lingering issues, including:
• Changing the date of annual meeting. Act 1 permits municipalities to move their 2021 annual meeting to a later (and potentially safer) date. It will be up to the municipality to determine the later date.
• Voting by mail. Act 1 permits local legislative bodies to require municipal clerks to mail 2021 annual meeting early voter absentee Australian ballots to all active registered municipal voters to encourage absentee voting, and thereby reduce possible exposure to COVID-19.
• Brattleboro. Act 1 authorizes the Town of Brattleboro to hold its annual representative town meeting by electronic means. Brattleboro is the only town in the state with a representative town meeting.
• Northeast Kingdom Waste Management District. Its board of supervisors may vote to adopt the district’s budget for the ensuing fiscal year.
• Extending the term of municipal officers. If a local legislative body moves the date of the 2021 annual meeting, municipal officers will have to serve until the annual meeting and until successors are chosen.
• Secretary of State’s supplemental authority. Act 1 authorizes the secretary of state to order or permit supplemental election procedures related to the provisions within the bill. Under current law, the secretary of state has no authority over local elections, however directives and assistance from his office proved invaluable to municipalities in 2020 during the early days of the pandemic. This authority is only meant to be supplemental and to help municipalities conduct successful annual meetings and protect the health, safety, and welfare of voters, election workers, and candidates. The secretary of state would further adopt any necessary procedures that ensure the public can monitor polling places and vote counting.
The act takes into account municipalities with charters that have more specific provisions regulating annual meeting. Those charter provisions will remain in place and are not affected by the act. The House Government Operations Committee made a point to also include language that encourages cooperation between municipal entities. Act 1 requests municipal officials – including boards of civil authority and municipal clerks – to cooperate with school districts and other incorporated districts with administering annual district meetings and budget votes. School districts in particular rely heavily on towns and cities to help perform their annual meetings; to the extent practicable, they both should be working together to align meeting dates and resources. This will both ensure the best use of limited monetary and human resources and create less confusion and a more streamlined process for voters.