Drive-Through Town Meeting In Vernon - Keeping A Democratic Tradition During Coronavirus Crisis
Hartford Courant, March 26, 2020
By Jesse Leavonworth
Vernon recently held a drive-through town meeting, a continuation during extraordinary times of a centuries-old staple of American democracy.
“We’ve got to keep business moving,” Town Administrator Michael Purcaro said. “Shutting down is not an option for us.”
In a scenario that Norman Rockwell never imagined, voters dialed into a virtual public hearing at 7:35 p.m., then motored up to the front of town hall to vote before 9 p.m. With car windows closed, they showed their drivers’ licenses to town workers in protective gear, then gave a thumbs up or down to the proposal, a shifting of about $3 million in town funds to eliminate internal vehicle leasing debt and avoid an adverse impact on the tax rate.
Necessary by town rules because of the amount of money at issue, the meeting had been planned well in advance of the coronavirus crisis, Purcaro said. Vernon officials expect to hold another drive-through town meeting on April 28 on adoption of the fiscal year 2020-21 budget, he said.
Purcaro said town leaders are aware of the executive order Gov. Ned Lamont issued Saturday, which allows community leaders to pass budgets without holding town meetings or referendums.
In 2018, according to Connecticut Council of Small Towns Executive Director Betsy Gara, 117 towns approved a municipal spending plan at town meeting or referendum and 8 towns approved budgets in a representative town meeting, which is a limited town meeting.
Relief from gatherings back to top
The governor’s order relieves towns from holding those public gatherings while enabling councils and selectmen to avoid fiscal chaos and pass budgets on time for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
But Purcaro said Vernon “is still living by the charter - to honor the original intent."
“To the extent that we can keep our democracy alive and well and our democratic processes and our ability to engage the public within the latest guidance and best practices, we are going to do that," he said
“It’s very innovative," she said, “and I think in these difficult times, we certainly are going to have to rely on innovation.”
“You’ve got to be looking for innovative ways to conduct town business in this crisis,” Kevin Maloney, spokesman for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said.
“Vernon should be given a lot of credit for trying an alternative method that can help gather public input and approval yet still protect pubic health,” Maloney said. “Let’s hope it’s an effective method."
Asked for his take, Manchester General Manager Scott Shanley, a veteran public administrator, said, “We need to be unconstrained about the way we’ve always done things. This is unlike anything I’ve done in my 35 years in town government.”
Governing bodies in Manchester and other communities have held virtual meetings recently and likely will continue that practice for the foreseeable future.
Vernon’s town attorney vetted the dial-in public hearing and said voters must be able to listen to comments and questions and ask questions themselves, Purcaro said. Some voters, as in past town meetings, may decide to skip the public hearing and just proceed to the drive-through any time from 7:40 to 9 p.m.
Police officers will be on hand to direct traffic, he said. Tents also will be set up for voters who want to walk up to vote. Social distancing rules will be followed with those voters, Purcaro said.