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Without Clear State Guidance, Towns Consider How To Hold Budget Votes During Pandemic

Without Clear State Guidance, Towns Consider How To Hold Budget Votes During Pandemic

Hartford Courant, February 25, 2021

By Jesse Leavenworth and Don Stacom

With lingering confusion and lack of state guidance, municipal leaders say they are forging their own solutions on how to hold safe annual town meetings during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Vernon may hold another drive-through vote on the town budget in late April, while Avon Town Manager Brandon Robertson said he expects both a budget hearing in April and town meeting on May 3 will be conducted online.

Farmington Town Manager Kathleen Blonski said she did not foresee a virtual annual town meeting.

“If we decide that we cannot hold the meeting live (indoors) due to COVID -19 restrictions etc., we may look to hold the annual meeting outside,” Blonski said.

Either way, voters will decide in person whether to approve the budget at a referendum conducted from regular polling places, with safeguards in place, Blonski said.

And Berlin officials are waiting on clarification from Gov. Ned Lamont’s office before deciding how to proceed with their April 30 town budget meeting.

Lamont issued an executive order last year that relieved towns from holding public gatherings to vote on budgets. The order allowed town leaders to avoid financial chaos and pass spending plans on time, but it covered only budgets for the fiscal year that began July 1 last year.

Asked about state guidance for this year’s town meetings, the governor’s spokesman, David Bednarz, referred to “several executive orders last year” and webinars hosted by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the Connecticut Council of Small Towns.

But CCM Executive Director Joe DeLong said Tuesday that the executive branch “is letting towns figure it out on their own.” “It has put us in somewhat of a precarious position,” DeLong said.

Many votes back to top

In 2018, according to COST 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. Many voters consider the town meeting “the truest form of democracy,” Gara said.

Asked about current state guidance, Gara referred to an executive order (https://bit.ly/2ZWKUkt) that allows remote participation in public meetings and another that allows suspension of in person open meeting requirements (https://bit.ly/3sffbXA).

The problem, she said, is that those orders expire before most towns hold their annual budget meetings. So there is concern among town officials about whether they will be able to hold meetings remotely, Gara said, especially if the virus surges or vaccinations lag.

Some town leaders are interested in pursuing “no-excuse” absentee ballots for municipal votes, she said.

“There’s still a lot of uncertainty,” Gara said.

In South Windsor, a referendum is set for March 16 on several bond issues, “and since there isn’t any new guidance,” Town Manager Michael Maniscalco said the plan is to proceed with an in-person vote, with safeguards.

Berlin leaders are tentatively planning to proceed with a meeting to approve the next budget, but it may be online. If that happens, town staff would have to verify that all participants are residents before allowing them to vote electronically, Town Manager Arosha Jayawickrema said.

Vernon officials on Feb. 16 conducted the town’s third drive-through vote since the start of the pandemic, this time on the local share ($471,450) of a school roofing project. For the drive-through voting, people pull up, show their driver’s licenses to town workers in protective gear and vote with thumbs up or down.

Drive-through votes last year included the annual budget adoption, but Town Manager Michael Purcaro said Tuesday he did not know yet if this year’s budget vote, set for April 27, will be drive-through or in person. 

It depends, Purcaro said, on which method is deemed the safest. In any case, he said, the drive-through option is available. “We have a tried and true system to safely allow our registered voters to cast their ballots,” Purcaro said.