MIDDLEBURY – As the town poured into the Middlebury Union High School auditorium at 7 p.m. last Monday night for the annual Town Meeting, energy was high. Some brought their knitting, some brought brownie-wielding toddlers and all brought their own perspectives to add to the night’s nearly three hour discourse. Joining towns across Vermont in a tradition over 200 years old, the 2019 Middlebury Town Meeting used direct democracy to tackle issues such as the budget for the upcoming year, infrastructure initiatives, environmental proposals and the election of local officials.
This year, Middlebury joined Burlington and Manchester in passing a long-awaited and hard-fought article to advise the Selectboard to ban single-use plastic bags in retail locations. The article, which was spearheaded by local resident Amy McAninch and Middlebury student Amelia Miller ’20, was approved on Tuesday’s Australian Ballot vote at Town Hall. It passed in Middlebury with a vote of 838 to 211. At the meeting itself, attendees unanimously approved Articles 1-7. This included a long-debated town budget of $11,155,400, spending plan approvals and the allocation of a $400,000 surplus from the Cross Street Bridge Reserve Fund to be put toward capital projects and to serve as a property tax cushion.
For some, this year’s gathering was bittersweet. Former Governor and longtime Middlebury resident Jim Douglas ’72 has moderated Middlebury’s Town Meeting since 1986, and after 32 years serving the town, 2019 was Douglas’ last. Before public debate began, the Selectboard dedicated their annual town report to Douglas among cheers and a standing ovation from the attendees. Selectboard Vice Chair Nick Artim lauded the retiring moderator for “his calm demeanor, his dry sense of humor and his amazing ability to know and remember the names of almost everyone in the audience.”
As the meeting continued, it became clear what he meant. Douglas moderated discussion with a cool hand for almost three hours, calling on most townspeople to speak using a first-name basis. Much of this time was spent deliberating over fiscal Articles 2-4, which included use of the Cross Street Bridge Reserve Fund surplus, purchase of new town vehicles and the adoption of the proposed budget for the upcoming year. Each of these articles passed, including a friendly amendment to Article 4 on the provisions of the town budget.
Articles 5-7 were approved with less discussion. These included means of collecting local taxes and, in Article 7, authorization of a loan of up to $100,000 for the Memorial Sports Center. This article passed with a friendly amendment as well, which will allow for the renewal of the loan as needed.
It was around 9 p.m. by the time Article 7 passed, and parents had begun quietly carrying their sleeping kids out of the auditorium. The night wasn’t over yet, though. Article 8, the final item on the night’s agenda, was not a vote but rather a chance for discussion of pertinent town topics.
State Senator Ruth Hardy spoke first, standing to read a resolution in honor of the Foster Brothers Farm for having recently become the first New England farm to receive the national Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year award.
Article 8 also allowed for discussion of the articles that would be voted on in the following day’s Australian ballot election. This included time for the candidates for town government positions to introduce themselves, and for Middlebury student Amelia Miller ’20 to give a presentation on her proposal for a town-wide ban on single-use plastic bags.
The ban, which passed by a significant margin of votes the next day, proved to be compelling to the crowd. Many stood to voice their support for the article after Miller’s plea to consider the environmental impact of non-reusable plastics. Middlebury resident Steve Gross even stood to add, “I believe this is almost a no-brainer.”
Inspiring winces and sighs from the attendees, Miller explained that in a town like Middlebury with a population of 8,598, the ban would annually reduce the use of bags by 4.6 million, eliminate approximately 120 metric tons of greenhouse gas and save retailers $182,000. “We just use an exorbitant amount of plastic bags,” Miller remarked.
Despite the Article’s passage, the town of Middlebury will still allow use of specific recyclable or reusable plastic bags such as those used for dry cleaning. The town will instead eliminate single-use bags such as those provided in grocery store check-out aisles, and paper bags will still be permitted.
Other Articles passed in Tuesday’s Australian Ballot vote included a motion to appropriate $3,000 to the Habitat for Humanity of Addison County to support affordable housing and a motion to advise the Selectboard to send a letter to the Vermont Statehouse in support of the 350VT Climate Solutions Resolution. Article 10 was comprised of a motion to advise the adoption of the same Climate Resolution locally, including initiatives to reduce energy usage and to install solar panels on town and school buildings. Each of these Articles passed with a significant majority.
Several town officers were also elected in the Australian Ballot, including Listers Gary F. Baker and Elizabeth J. Dow; Selectboard members Nick Artim, Victor Nuovo and Heather J. Seeley; Ilsley Library Trustees Alice L. Eckles, Joe McVeigh and Catherine P. Nichols and, taking over for former Governor Douglas as Moderator, Susan E. Shashokm
It was nearing 10 p.m. when the meeting finally concluded with cheers from the sprinkle of residents still in the auditorium. For some, this year’s Town Meeting was yet another continuation of a tradition they have known their whole lives. For others, this year’s meeting brought renewed hope to improving Middlebury’s infrastructure, community and environment. And for retiring Moderator Jim Douglas, the end of the meeting marked his last motion on the town stage. “The ‘ayes’ have it, and the annual meeting stands adjourned.”