Madawaska residents vote during the annual town meeting, held in the Middle/High School Cafeteria. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

The pandemic may have hastened a move away from the quintessential Maine town meeting where residents gather every year to air their differences and approve local budgets and policy changes.

A handful of Maine towns this year could make that traditional gathering a thing of the past, following two years when pandemic protocols prevented many of the in-person gatherings and even led to greater participation in local government when towns used secret ballots.

Voters in Camden and Union this year will decide whether to have voters weigh in on the town budget and other matters at the polls rather than at the traditional, in-person meetings held in June. Voters in Hope will also weigh in on their town’s use of the town meeting through a non-binding referendum.

In the last two years, when Union called off its town meeting, more residents weighed in on town business at the polls than ever attended the traditional gatherings, Town Manager Jay Feyler said.

“I look at it, personally, as the more people who can weigh in on town business the better we are,” he said.

In Camden, voters will decide in June on a town charter amendment that would formalize the move away from town meetings. Voters in the Knox County town already showed their support for conducting town business by secret ballot last November in a non-binding referendum.

The flexibility of secret ballots gives people who can’t make it to town meetings the opportunity to still participate in local government, Camden Town Manager Audra Caler said. Voters would be able to stop in at any time polls are open or vote absentee, and the town votes would coincide with statewide June elections.

“That’s sort of the reality of the lives that people are living now: Even if they want to be engaged it’s really difficult for them to be,” Caler said.

Even if Camden does away with the annual town meeting, that doesn’t mean the town won’t hold special town meetings during the year if needed, she said.

The Maine Municipal Association hasn’t noticed a groundswell of movement away from the traditional town meeting, according to Kate Dufour, the organization’s advocacy and communications director.

Nonetheless, she said, “that these conversations are taking place is not surprising, because it was a good social experiment on how to get people, our residents, involved in their government, it belongs to them.”

While rarely more than 100 residents attend annual town meetings in Union and Camden, participation greatly increased when they allowed residents to vote by ballot over the past two years.

In 2020, 783 of Union’s approximately 2,400 residents voted on the town budget, followed by 279 in 2021. In Camden, 2,037 residents voted on the town budget via secret ballot in 2020 followed by 773 in 2021. Camden is home to about 5,200 residents.

Union’s Select Board last week voted 3-2 to ask residents at the polls in June whether to replace the annual town meeting with ballot voting.

Doing away with town meetings, however, can come with some downsides, said Union Select Board Chair Adam Fuller, who voted against pursuing the change.

At in-person meetings, residents can discuss and debate budget items before voting. While towns hold informational hearings before ballot votes, residents aren’t obligated to attend, “so they can go and vote off nothing but a few Facebook posts they saw,” Fuller said.

“A town meeting vote, as contentious as it can be at times, you do have to sit through the discussion before the vote, and I think that has value,” he said.

On the other hand, Fuller said, “I see the value in having a more inclusive vote, so I think there’s pluses and minuses on both sides.”

If not for the pandemic, Caler doesn’t think Camden would have seriously considered dropping its town meeting. Feyler said Union may have considered it, but the pandemic undoubtedly has made it happen sooner.

“When you have transformative events it really does give you pause to think about how things are done and how you move forward,” Dufour said. “I think the pandemic has been one of those events.”