Historic vote postponement leaves budget and trails up in the air

Meeting in surreal circumstances, the Charlotte Selectboard decided during an emergency meeting on April 2 to postpone a scheduled April 7 vote on the town budget and town trail funding. In order to comply with Governor Phil Scott’s Stay Home, Stay Safe order, the board unanimously agreed that it was in the best interest of Charlotters as well as town election officials to postpone voting until it can be conducted in a safe manner that meets all legal requirements.

The decision was made after Secretary of State issued a directive on the morning of April 3 allowing municipalities to postpone elections that were otherwise mandated by local laws and procedures. It stated, “any municipality that has an upcoming annual meeting or other election that is mandated to be held on or by a certain date, either by charter, article of agreement, other governing document, or by the provisions of 17 V.S.A. §2643 or §2661, may cancel that election and hold it on a different date in the year 2020 as determined by the municipality.”

Vermont’s Director of Elections Will Senning said that the directive was specifically created with towns like Charlottte in mind. Because of the Town Charter, which sunsets this year, agenda items approved at town meeting with a voice vote must be confirmed by Australian ballot at a later date. Per the warning issued by the town of Charlottte after Town Meeting Day, the town’s FY20/21 budget and a funding item for the Charlotte Town Trail, which were both preliminarily approved at town meeting, will not be approved until there is a town-wide Australian ballot vote.

The new directive gave the governor, along with Vermont’s secretary of state, the ability to alter the election process for the rest of the year, Senning said, and after the directive was issued, he said, “The first exercise of that authority was this directive, and it was exactly for these situations. It’s common, mostly among villages, for towns to have mandated election dates.”

“Election law doesn’t actually have a lot of guidance on cancelling; it doesn’t mention it,” Senning said, but for most towns in the state, there’s some wiggle room, in case there’s a snow storm, for instance, or the town hall burns down. “But I couldn’t even apply that general guidance to municipalites…like Charlotte.” He said the new directive allowed Charlotte to “close the loophole” created by the charter mandate, and that in his discussions with Town Clerk Mary Mead and members of the Selectboard, he recommended that they postpone the vote.

Despite the state of Wisconsin needing to get the Supreme Court involved for a similar decision and deciding to forge ahead with voting, the Charlotte Selectboard held a decisive, surreal, and fairly short meeting in the parking lot of Spears’ Store to address the same situation and reach a different decision. Though the vote had already been warned, many absentee ballots mailed, and provisions were in place for a modified voting scenario, the board ultimately decided to follow the state’s recommendation.

Present at the meeting were members of the trails committee, some of whom wondered if ballots already submitted could be saved for a later vote, or if the town could do mail-only ballots; both suggestions were deemed out of the bounds of laws that mandate fair and equitable elections.

Selectboard chair Matt Krasnow read, and the board voted to approve, a motion that postponed the vote and acknowledged, “The Selectboard would also like to recognize the hard work put in by the Town’s election officials Mary Mead and Christina Booher. They have been pivoting constantly for the past three weeks in an effort to salvage the election in the face of mounting constraints imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the mitigation responses to it…

The Town will continue to be in discussion with the Secretary of State’s Office and as soon as the Selectboard receives guidance on how to safely conduct an election, we will set a date, time and place for the budget vote and notify everyone about any changes in procedures (if any) that may need to be made to ensure a safe vote.”

Thank you for understanding and for requesting so many absentee ballots this year.

Stay well and be safe.

At Monday’s meeting, the Selectboard set a new election date of June 23.