The annual Town Meeting is older than the state of Maine, but a present-day pandemic is causing it to take a year off in many municipalities across the state. 

A large gathering of people together in one room is not allowed under current state guidelines due to the coronavirus, which has made holding the traditional in-person meeting nearly impossible. That has forced towns to find a different method for voting on warrant articles. 

“For months now — Town Meeting season — we’ve been getting a lot of COVID-related questions about how to hold Town Meetings, can we hold them, what can we do now that we can’t hold them, 50 people or more show up, etc.,” said Eric Conrad, director of Communication and Educational Services for Maine Municipal Association. “So that’s maybe been our No. 1 issue. That and elections and some tax deadline questions.” 

Conrad said the association was pleased last week when Gov. Mills’ Executive Order authorized towns that still hold Town Meetings to have their annual votes by in-person paper ballot or absentee ballot.

Sue Callahan, left, and her mother-in-law, Judy Callahan vote for an article in the Minot town meeting in March, before the grip of the coronavirus took hold. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“That was something we had been waiting for several weeks and it was nice that it finally came out, and that provided us some clarity,” Conrad said. 

He said at least 350 of the state’s 487 municipalities hold annual Town Meetings in some fashion.  

“I think a lot of our Town Meeting towns that had been waiting, and are still affected by or potentially affected by that 50 people gathering in one place limitation, I think a lot of them are trying to move quickly now to paper ballots to make it for the July 14 primary,” Conrad added. 

Jay is one of those towns that has moved its Town Meeting to July 14, in conjunction with the statewide primary ballot and Regional School Unit 73 budget voting, according to Town Manager Shiloh LaFreniere, though the change is merely an adjustment on the calendar. 

“In Jay, we vote our town meeting articles by referendum vote so the effect on us was not as significant as it was for municipalities that still have traditional Town Meetings,” LaFreniere said. “The warrant was approved in March and the town meeting date was set for April 28. Absentee ballots were made available at the end of March but due to the virus restrictions we had to delay the Town Meeting.” 

Norway still holds a traditional Town Meeting at which some town spending decisions are made. Norway Town Manager Dennis Lajoie said the annual Town Meeting, which had been scheduled for June 15, has been tentatively rescheduled for July 20, though even that date is still up in the air. 

“We usually exceed 50 folks attending,” Lajoie said. “We are in a holding pattern until we get some additional information from the governor’s office.” 

Dixfield made the difficult decision to not hold an annual Town Meeting and instead will manage the next fiscal year on its current budget, according to Town Manager Dustin Starbuck. 

Farmington seems headed to that decision, as recommended by Town Manager Richard Davis. 

“It is a very tough decision,” Davis said. “Town Meeting is often referred to as the ‘purest form of democracy,’ and Farmington has held at least one every year since its incorporation in 1794. Extraordinary times, however, call for extraordinary measures. The physical limitation of 50 people or fewer, which is in place at least through August, led to my recommendation.” 

Davis said his recommendation needs to be decided by the Board of Selectmen. 

He noted that the Town Meeting typically has 100-150 residents in attendance, meaning the earliest a reschedule could happen is September, if the governor’s gathering limit is lifted. 

“At that point, we will be three-quarters of the way through our budget year,” Davis said. 

While towns such as Farmington and Dixfield have the authority to work under the current budget, not having the Town Meeting means there isn’t the normal opportunity for what Conrad called “community dialogue.” 

“One of the beauties of New England town meeting is, even if you only have 30 or 40 or 50 people show up, there’s an opportunity for dialogue that in that room people can talk about the budget, they can talk about an ordinance that’s been proposed on the warrant,” Conrad said. 

Davis called that the major drawback to his recommendation. 

“Although the proposed budget is slightly below last year’s, some folks may want to see reductions in certain areas. Others may want to see increases in certain areas. It is always good to have the debate. That would be missed,” Davis said. 

There are other items on the warrant for Farmington’s Town Meeting, such as a road discontinuance and an agreement to lease property at the town landfill for a solar installation, but Davis called those “not pressing” and said they could wait for a special town meeting later this year or next year. 

Conrad said one positive that might come out of this year’s move to secret ballot voting is that it might encourage more people to vote. 

“With COVID-19 being on everybody’s mind, what would turnout have been at this year’s Town Meeting in-person anyway?” Conrad asked. “It’s probably safer, from a health viewpoint, to vote on paper like we do with most of our elections. So we were worried about turnout, and there’s a chance that because it’s on paper and safer, and you can vote absentee, that they’ll actually get more people voting on a budget up or down, yes or no, without that dialogue than in the old way.”

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