The 2022 Waterford Town Meeting will again be held by mail-in ballot.

On Monday the motion was approved unanimously by the select board — which now consists of two members — board chair Fred Saar and Warner Hodgdon. Bill Piper, a four-year member of the board, resigned at the beginning of the month and no one has been appointed to replace him.

At a Waterford select board meeting held on Dec. 14, 2020, a similar measure was passed unanimously with regards to the 2021 Town Meeting, which was also held by mail-in, or Australian, ballot.

This week’s decision, however, drew a large amount of community pushback — almost twenty minutes of dissent and discussion involving a dozen participants was had before the unanimous vote of Saar and Hodgdon was called.

Saar broached the discussion by noting that S172 — passed by the Vermont House of Representatives and Senate and delivered to the Governor on Jan. 11, but not yet signed — allows towns to decide to hold Town Meeting 2022 by Australian Ballot. The bill also would allow municipalities to move their meeting to a “potentially safer date later in the year.”

Saar noted that the board was meeting in the Union Baptist Church instead of their usual spot at the Davies Memorial Library “because COVID is getting worse.” The board also adopted a policy “strongly encouraging” masks for public meetings in Dec. 2021.

State Representative Marcia Martel, R-Waterford, spoke up immediately, pointing out that towns did not have to go to mail-in balloting if they did not want to.

“If we do it all by Australian ballot, of course, we [the townspeople] don’t have any say, number one,” Martel said. “And number two, the town has to pick up the bill.”

“Well, I guess the question is … we can’t decide to have Town Meeting and have COVID-19 go crazy and all of a sudden need to switch over to mail-in voting…” Saar replied.

Resident Kathy Goslant also spoke up.

“I want to tell you that COVID-19 has already gone crazy,” she said. “The hospital where I work is in crisis intervention mode. UVM had 450 staff members out on Friday … that’s like a quarter of their staff.”

“[COVID-19] is so rampant right now,” Goslant said. “So we might as well have an open meeting because, by then, it’s probably not going to be so rampant … everybody is gonna have had it.”

Saar pointed out that the town saw much higher participation in Town Meeting 2021, which he attributes to mail-in voting. Goslant countered that, with mail-in ballots, there is no opportunity to discuss anything.

“We’ve got town meeting, also,” Saar said, likely referring to the pre-Town Meeting informational session, which Waterford held by Zoom last year. “I believe [we did it by Zoom], but I don’t recall exactly.”

Following a pause, Saar went into the discussion of plans for Town Meeting 2022.

After expressing her frustration that Saar did not recall what happened last year for Town Meeting, Goslant said, “I guess I’m saying that I think you’re doing a rotten job.”

“We would like your resignation,” she continued.

Following a sizeable pause, Saar replied, “What’s in it for me?”

“What’s in it for you to continue?” asked Goslant. “So you can have the power in Waterford?”

“I don’t have any power outside of the select board,” replied Saar. “I know there’s this, ‘oh, Fred runs the town,’ but tell me why that’s true. Give me an example of it.”

Goslant referred to the budget, which Saar presented to around 15 voters on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, to numerous critiques and side-commentaries.

Saar explained that the budget has been done that way for a number of years, to which former longtime select board member Gary Allard — who recently announced his candidacy for Piper’s vacant seat — explained that the budget used to be presented by Town Clerk Joanne Jurentkuff until her retirement in 2017.

“Plus, even in prior years, we had a budget meeting earlier in the year [than January], where nobody would come,” Allard said. “Now, people are here, and it’s a different story…”

Saar brought the conversation back to plans for Town Meeting.

“My inclination is to do mail-in voting,” he said. “We don’t know where COVID is going, we don’t know how many people will be able to get out and the mail-in ballots provide an opportunity for people to vote.”

“One of the things I’ve heard repeatedly about the way the select board is dealing with things is that voters in the town of Waterford need to make decisions and vote on things and have a voice,” Saar continued. “So, I’d like to make a motion that Waterford do mail-in voting in 2022 once the Governor signs the bill.”

Waterford resident Roberta Gillot asked what the select board member — Warner Hodgdon, who had not yet spoken — thought.

“Oh, I’m 100 percent behind mail-in voting,” Hodgdon said. “It had much better participation, it’s safer … I think it’s the way to go.”

Gillot expressed her desire to allow wider discussion around the issues, asking if the town could have more than one Zoom pre-Town Meeting.

“I apologize again for forgetting the schedule for voting last year, but we’ll probably try to follow the same schedule,” Saar said, referring to one Zoom pre-Town Meeting and then the Australian ballot election. “I just … I thought a lot about it, I just don’t believe it’s safe to have a huge town meeting.”

“And Warner [Hodgdon] agreed, and he’s the only other selectman…?” Gillot asked.

“Warner’s opportunity to disagree is not to vote for it,” Saar explained. “With two selectmen, if it’s a tie, it fails. And Warner and I haven’t discussed it.”

“So, we pretty much don’t have a say in it,” noted another meeting attendee.

“So you’re both voting for mail-in ballots, and to hell with the rest of us?” asked another.

“Well…” said Saar. “Yeah, it’d be mail-in ballots.”

Martel and Goslant both noted that line items could not be changed during an Australian ballot election or a Zoom pre-town meeting.

Saar then asked the audience where such a meeting could be held.

Meeting attendees threw out suggestions ranging from Waterford School — which Saar said would not allow the select board to use it last year, but he hadn’t checked in a couple of months — to outdoors at the fire station or town garage.

“I understand why you’d like to have a Town Meeting to have the discussion,” Saar said. “It’s just a balance between that and the potential for spreading COVID.”

Martel asked what would happen if ballots got lost in the mail.

“What if you get them late, like Mrs. Davis’ taxes?” she said. “Then do they not count?”

Debbie Allard and Saar noted that people could drop their Australian ballot in the dropbox by the town offices.

“I know this is going to make me very unpopular - well, I don’t know if I could get any more unpopular,” said Saar. “But I’m going to make the motion that we do mail-in balloting to allow the greatest number of people in Waterford to participate.”

“I guess we’ve talked about it,” said Hodgdon. “I second this motion.”

“Any other discussion?” Saar asked. “I’m really sensitive to you guys wanting to have an in-person meeting, but it’s just … so many places have been ravaged by COVID-19.”

After agreeing to host another meeting on the town budget, and nothing that ballot-making will be quite the production, Saar and Hodgdon unanimously approved the motion and moved on with the meeting.

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