All articles are approved in annual Middlebury town meeting

A+Middlebury+resident+poses+a+question+to+the+selectboard+during+the+Middlebury+town+hall.+

LUCY TOWNEND

A Middlebury resident poses a question to the selectboard during the Middlebury town hall.

By LUCY TOWNEND and ARIADNE WILL

Hundreds of Middlebury residents gathered at the town meeting at Middlebury Union High School on Monday night, approving all seven proposed articles. The town meeting, a manifestation of direct democracy, involved the discussion of several proposals, followed by a voice vote. Residents also reviewed and discussed information on three more legislative articles that were decided on Tuesday via Australian ballot.  

The meeting featured first-time Moderator Susan Shashok, who replaced former Vermont Governor and longtime town meeting moderator Jim Douglas ’72.  Shashok has previously attended the town meeting as a member of the selectboard — the town’s governing group of seven elected members — and was endorsed by Douglas last year after he announced he would not be running again for the position of moderator.

“[Douglas’s endorsement] felt pretty good,” Shashok said in a phone interview Wednesday. “He’s been a very good mentor to me during this process. Even though it’s big shoes to fill, I told everybody I’d have different shoes. Jim’s okay with that and so I’m okay with that.”

At the meeting, Middlebury Selectboard Chair Brian Carpenter read a year-in-review report, which mainly focused on progress of the Middlebury Bridge and Rail Project.

The town budget was approved without dissent and included increased funding for the replacement of public works equipment, such as the town’s 25-year-old street sweeper. Tax surpluses will be used to fund downtown projects like the railroad platform and updates to light fixtures.

The two most contentious articles of the night were Article 4 and Article 2, both of which allocated additional extra-budget funds to first responder services. Article 4 requested a $63,721 increase in appropriations for Middlebury Regional Emergency and Medical Services (MREMS).

Some residents expected money requests for first response care to be part of the town budget, and not presented as a separate article. But the the selectboard said it had not had enough time to review the MREMS allocation request to add it to the budget beforehand. 

Opponents were concerned about giving such a large sum of money to a non-profit without the selectboard spending time to review the proposal. Advocates for the article however, claimed that emergency and medical services are essential. 

“I understand and appreciate the concerns expressed regarding municipal appropriations for independent, non-profit entities,” said Ben Fuller, vice-chair of MREMS, in an email to The Campus. “That said, I also believe that the critical, life-saving services we provide put us in a slightly different category than most other non-profits.” 

These concerns led to a motion to postpone consideration of the item, an action that Shashok said she hadn’t anticipated.

“We had one motion to lay the item on the table, and that’s very rare,” Shashok told The Campus. “I knew what to do, but I had to stop the meeting and double-check my notes just to make sure I had it right.”

The motion to table eventually failed, and Article 4 passed with an amendment to limit the increased funding to one year.

“I think it was the best solution to support them this one time, and make sure that the selectboard had full authority to vet and include what we feel is appropriate in next year’s budget,” Carpenter told The Campus.

Article 2, which allocated $80,000 to the Middlebury Police Department (MPD) for the purchase of new police cruisers, also incited discussion at the meeting. Residents pointed out that funds for vehicle replacement are an annual expenditure, not a one-time purchase. Police Chief Tom Hanley agreed and said during the meeting that he is not sure why the police vehicle allocation has not been added to MPD’s budget.

LUCY TOWNEND
Moderator Susan Shashok waits for the 2020 Middlebury town meeting to begin.

Discussions centered around the high wear and tear on police cars, which can be used for four years before requiring heightened levels of maintenance. In focusing on environmental concerns, the police department replaced one of its cars last year with a hybrid car. Though the cruiser is not yet in service in Middlebury, the department is considering purchasing two more hybrid cruisers this year.

Other articles dealt with 2020 tax collection dates and allocation of funds from the Cross Street Reserve Fund for water system improvements. The selectboard’s goal is to complete the water system improvements before the state begins a repaving project throughout town. 

“Ideally, we would not replace the roads and then dig them up again,” said selectboard member Heather Seeley at the meeting.

The meeting ended with discussion of other articles that would appear on the Australian ballot the following day, including Article 9, a proposition that allocates funds to flood resilience projects in East Middlebury. Article 8 proposed allocating $5,000 to the Turning Point Center, a non-profit that provides services to those suffering from substance abuse, and Article 10 proposed using $850,000 to rehabilitate dilapidated buildings near the police station. All articles passed with healthy margins on Tuesday, according to Carpenter.

Dave Silberman, attorney and Middlebury resident, spoke multiple times during the meeting.

“Democracy only works when people participate in it,” Silberman said.  “I really feel that I’m exercising my civic duty.” 

For Vermonters like Silberman, who values democratic participation, and Shashok, who considers herself a “democracy geek,” town meeting presents an opportunity to take advantage of an important tradition. 

“I love Vermont’s town meeting,” said Fuller, the vice-chair of MREMS. “It’s an iconic tradition that helps preserve the sense of community in our towns and allows for the most direct and transparent form of democratic government.”