Could pandemic further erode the New England town meeting?

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Copyright 2012, 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - In this March 6, 2012, file photo, officials preside over the annual town meeting in Bethel, Vt. The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting New England town meetings in 2021, a tradition where citizens gather to debate and decide on local issues. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

MIDDLESEX, Vt. – The town meeting, for centuries, was a staple of New England life — but the coronavirus pandemic could accelerate the departure from the tradition where people gather to debate everything from the purchase of local road equipment to multimillion-dollar budgets to pressing social issues.

The basis of the town meeting is to bring everyone together in the same room — sometimes a literal town hall, sometimes a school gymnasium — where voters will hash out local issues until a decision is made.

The restrictions on in-person gatherings imposed by the pandemic make that impossible.

Some communities are delaying meetings this year until the virus will, hopefully, be more under control. Others are using pre-printed ballots to decide issues, forgoing the daylong debate altogether.

Some worry the temporary workaround could remain even after life returns to normal.

“I’d be very disappointed if people think that this is a new model because that would move us away completely from the essence of town meeting, which is the opportunity to assemble with our fellow voters, to hear from our elected officials directly, to question, to challenge them, to debate a budget and public questions in an assembled meeting,” said former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, who served for 33 years as moderator in his hometown of Middlebury.

But others counter that the challenges of getting people together during town meeting, virus or no, restrict the number of people who can participate.

In Vermont, where the traditional Town Meeting Day — the first Tuesday in March — is a holiday, the state authorized towns this year only to decide local issues with pre-printed ballots. Most towns that chose the option held remote informational meetings to help voters make informed decisions.