Turnout for Tuesday’s Charlotte budget vote just 7.3 percent

Photo by Chea Waters Evans
Turnout was thin Tuesday for the final vote on the Charlotte town budget and other spending items for 2018-19. Just 161 voters cast ballots in favor of the budget. Charlotte’s charter calls for voters to discuss and set spending requests on Town Meeting Day, but not approve them until April.

The multipurpose room at Charlotte Central School accommodated the lunchtime voting rush just fine.

At its longest, the line was three-people deep, according to Town Clerk Mary Mead, who spent the day working at the polls. The April 3 vote was to confirm the municipal budget that was discussed and approved on Town Meeting Day, March 7, plus smaller budgetary items concerning the Charlotte Senior Center and the Recreation Department.

Out of the 3,102 registered voters in Charlotte, 228 participated in Tuesday’s vote, Mead said.

By a vote of just 161-66, voters approved the 2018-19 budget of $3,145,965. Two other questions also passed:

• Voters approved 138-89 a request to purchase generators for the Charlotte Senior Center and Town Hall.
• A request to add $30,000 to the Recreation Reserve Fund for capital improvements passed 147-80.

Low turnout at the voting booth is most likely the result of the Charlotte Town Charter. Passed in 2016 and implemented in 2017, it was intended to make it easier for as many residents as possible to participate in making municipal financial decisions, regardless of their ability to attend town meeting.

The town budget now is warned and discussed on Town Meeting Day, and then a vote is held approximately six weeks later to officially approve it. State law requires a 30-day warning before a vote once the budget amount is decided.

Will Senning, director of Elections and Campaign Finance for the state of Vermont, said Charlotte is a pioneer in this approach. “To the best of my knowledge, it’s the first town to do it this way,” he said. Senning said he was involved in the initial discussions and brainstorming for the charter, but that town officials finalized the actual charter language.

“I understood what they were trying to do – wanting to maintain discussion,” he said. “I thought it was creative, well-intentioned, and legitimate.”

The primary concern of the Town Charter’s creators was opening the budget discussion up to more voters and allowing public discussion to take place before the actual number is approved. If the budget amount is warned a month beforehand, any discussion the night before a vote can only be for informational purposes.

Despite efforts by the town clerk and the Selectboard to notify residents of Tuesday’s vote, turnout was just over 7 percent. On Town Meeting Day last month, 130 people attended the meeting portion; 640 people cast ballots in the all-day Australian ballot on the school budget and election of town officers.

Confusion about what, exactly, was being voted upon Tuesday seemed to be a primary reason for the lack of voters. Looking around the nearly empty school multi-purpose room, Mead said, “People think they already voted.”

The Town Charter has a provision for this budget approval method to end in March 2020.

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