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Wednesday, March 10, 2021

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the State has enacted temporary authority to allow municipal legislative bodies to postpone the date of their towns’ annual meetings. These FAQs are designed for those legislative bodies who have already postponed their annual meeting as well as those still considering doing so. For additional information about other COVID-19 related resources, please visit our Coronavirus Resources and Recommendations webpage. Please also refer to our 2021 Town Meeting webpage for additional deadlines, model documents, and other informational resources. We recommend reviewing this entire document as many of the FAQs are related.

These FAQs have been developed by VLCT for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel. This information is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. You should not rely or act upon this information without seeking professional counsel. VLCT makes no express or implied guarantee of legal enforceability or legal compliance. VLCT also does not represent that any FAQ is appropriate for any particular municipality. Please seek legal counsel before taking action based on anything found in these FAQs.

Can we move the date of our annual meeting? If so, how?

Yes, Act 1 (H.48) of 2021 temporarily allows municipal legislative bodies to change the date of the annual town meeting to a later date in 2021. The selectboard must vote, by approval of a majority of its total membership, at a duly warned meeting to postpone its annual meeting.

Can a legislative body vote to postpone the annual meeting if it has already posted and noticed the town meeting warning?

Yes. Legislative bodies can vote to move the date of town meeting using Act 1 (H.48) even if they have already posted the warning for a March 2, 2021 annual meeting. The legislative body will just need to ensure that it moves the meeting to a date far enough into the future in order to meet the warning and notice deadline requirements for its rescheduled town meeting (i.e., not less than 30 nor more than 40 days before town meeting).

When is the last day a legislative body can vote to postpone the annual meeting?

Ideally, this decision should be made as soon as possible. In terms of an absolute deadline, the last day a legislative body can vote to move the date of town meeting will be the day before the annual town meeting is scheduled. Waiting until the last minute however is likely to cause voters a lot of unnecessary confusion and consternation. If a legislative body seeks to postpone the annual meeting, it’s recommended that it do so as soon as possible.

What is the last possible date to which we can postpone Town Meeting?

Theoretically, a legislative body can postpone the date of its municipality’s annual town meeting until December 31, 2021. This is because the temporary law authorizing postponement permits legislative bodies to postpone their annual meetings to any future date in the calendar year 2021.

If we postpone town meeting, do we have to postpone it to a specific date or can we postpone it to some future event (i.e. “when it is safe to do so”)?

The relevant language of Act 1 (H.48) on this point reads, “a municipal legislative body may vote to move the date of the municipality’s 2021 annual meeting to a date later in the year 2021.” Sec. 2(a)(1).  On its face, we interpret this provision to mean that, if the annual meeting is postponed, it must be postponed to a specific date. We recommend that the legislative body’s motion to postpone town meeting include a reference to Act 1 and the specific date to which the meeting will be postponed.

We’ve already switched to Australian ballot voting for this year’s annual town meeting. Can we still postpone it?

Yes. In response to the concerns posed by COVID-19, the Vermont Legislature passed Act 162 which temporarily allows municipalities that normally vote from the floor on Town Meeting Day to instead use the Australian ballot method of voting in order to avoid in-person public gatherings due to the risk they pose to the public health and safety. But just because a legislative body has voted to switch to the Australian ballot voting for its annual meeting does not preclude it from also moving the date of that meeting if it so chooses.

If we postpone town meeting, when do we have to mail out our town (auditors’) report?

At least ten days before the new date to which town meeting has been postponed. State law requires the town auditors to “report their findings in writing and cause the same to be mailed or otherwise distributed to the voters of the town at least ten days before the annual meeting.” 24 V.S.A. § 1682. If you have moved the date of your town meeting, then your town report doesn’t have to be mailed until ten days before the new town meeting date. Please also see our Annual Town Report FAQs.

If we postpone town meeting, should we delay the printing of our town report?

It depends on whether your town uses the town report as a means of noticing its town meeting warning. Vermont Law requires that the town meeting warning either be included in the town report or published in a newspaper of general circulation. If your town report is used to distribute the town meeting warning, then there’s a chance that the preexisting town meeting warning will need to change (e.g., because of a new voter-backed petitioned article). If the town meeting warning is changed, then the warning in the town report is inaccurate. If the warning is inaccurate, then the town will have to either republish the town report with the correct town meeting warning or publish the new warning in a newspaper of general circulation at least 5 days before town meeting.

What happens to other town meeting related deadlines?

Any required action that has a deadline tied to the date of the annual town meeting (e.g. warning and notice, candidate consent forms, voter-backed petitions, availability of ballots, etc.) will automatically shift as well. For example, Vermont Law requires that the town meeting warning and notice be posted not more than 40 days and not less than 30 days before the date of the annual town meeting. If your legislative body voted to move the date of town meeting to June 1, 2021, the deadlines for posting your town meeting warning and notice will automatically shift as well (i.e., earliest date to post the warning and notice will be April 22nd, and the latest date will be May 2nd). Please consult VLCT’s Online Municipal Calendar 2020-2021 for other relevant deadlines. Here are many of the important dates that will automatically shift with the postponement of the annual town meeting date:

  • Posting of warning and notice of town meeting;
  • Candidate consent forms, submission and withdrawal;
  • Voter-backed petitions;
  • Town report (auditors’ report);
  • Preparing and posting sample ballots (if voting by Australian ballot);
  • Charter proposal amendments.

What happens to the currently elected officers whose terms expire on March 2, 2021 if we postpone our town meeting to a later date in 2021?

Act 1 (H.48) clarifies that those municipal officers currently in office will continue to serve until the annual meeting is held and until successors are chosen.

We’ve recently experienced a vacancy in one our elected offices. Should we fill it now?

The law governing vacancies requires them to be filled “forthwith” by the legislative body. “Forthwith” means immediately or without delay. Conventional wisdom is that a vacancy does not have to be filled if it occurs within the timeframe for warning the annual town meeting (i.e. within 40 days). If the legislative body’s postponement of the date of the annual town meeting brings it outside this 40-day timeframe then it should appoint someone to fill the vacancy until the meeting is held. Please also see our Vacancies in Elected Office Faqs.

Our legislative body has postponed our town meeting. How do we fund our operations if we can’t pass a budget?

Local election law states that “(a)t its annual meeting, a town shall vote such sums of money as it deems necessary for the interest of its inhabitants and for the prosecution and defense of the common rights.” 17 V.S.A. § 2664. That means municipalities that have postponed their annual meetings won’t be able to pass their budgets. Last year, the Legislature enacted Act 105 (H.947) to assist those municipalities that weren’t able to hold their annual meetings. The law gave legislative bodies the temporary authority to adopt budgets for the next fiscal year without the need to hold town meetings to obtain voter approval. That law however was only applicable for those adopted within the calendar year 2020 and was not reauthorized. Instead, municipalities that have postponed their town meetings will have to borrow in order to fund their operations. Since voter approval is needed for most borrowing, these municipalities will have to avail themselves of the multiple ways in which they may borrow without voter approval: VLCT News Article: Can the Selectboard Borrow Money Without Voter Approval? . Probably the most relevant ways that legislative bodies can borrow money until the budget is adopted are: 1) to pay for current expenses and; 2) in anticipation of taxes. Both are ways that legislative bodies can borrow without voter approval, as long as the repayment term of the loan is less than 1 year.

Can we still send out tax bills if we postpone our town meeting?

No. Without a budget, legislative bodies won’t be able to set the tax rates needed to compose the bills. That’s because in order to arrive at a tax rate a legislative body must divide the amount of tax revenue needed by the total grand list. “If a town votes specific amounts in lieu of a rate on a dollar of the grand list, the selectboard shall, after the grand list book has been computed and lodged in the office of the town clerk, set the tax rate necessary to raise the specific amounts voted.” 17 V.S.A. § 2664. Without a budget, legislative bodies won’t know how much tax revenue the voters have authorized them to raise. Last year the Legislature enacted Act 105 (H.947) to assist those municipalities that weren’t able to hold their annual meetings. The law gave legislative bodies the temporary authority to establish a tax rate for the next fiscal year without the need to hold town meetings to obtain voter approval. That law however was only applicable for budgets adopted within the calendar year 2020 and was not reauthorized. Municipalities will have to wait until after their postponed annual meetings in order to set their tax rates.

Will we have to reestablish our tax due date(s)?

Maybe- it depends on how far ahead you’ve postponed your annual town meeting. Municipalities that have previously voted to establish the time and method of tax payment(s) won’t have to do so again. 32 V.S.A. § 4773(a). However, if the date of your postponed annual town meeting is scheduled after a tax due date, then you will have to either establish a new tax due date(s) or the date for the payment of taxes will be 30 days from whenever notice is mailed to the taxpayers. 32 V.S.A. § 4772.