Portage Lake holds its town meeting on Tuesday, June 2. The meeting was held outdoors in a tennis court to ensure social distancing. Credit: Courtesy of the town of Portage | BDN

The BDN is making the most crucial coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact in Maine free for all readers. Click here for all coronavirus stories. You can join others committed to safeguarding this vital public service by purchasing a subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.

A quintessential part of Maine’s small-town charm is undoubtedly the annual town meetings that are held in municipalities across the state, where townspeople can interact directly with their local officials and have a say on where their tax dollars are going.

At least 350 of Maine’s 487 municipalities conduct business through a town meeting format, according to Maine Municipal spokesperson Eric Conrad. About half of these towns hold their meetings in March, while the other half hold them in June.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

But with the COVID-19 pandemic causing state-ordered restrictions on large gatherings, towns with June town meetings have two options for how to proceed. One option would be postponing the meeting to a time when state officials say it’s safe for more than 50 people to gather. Alternatively, residents can — this year — vote on budgets and other town business via secret ballots, submitted either in person on an election day or through absentee ballot.

In an executive order last week, Gov. Janet Mills gave towns the authority to replace their annual town meeting with a secret-ballot vote.

While some town officials see the option of a paper-ballot vote as a way to have more residents participate in local government, they also agree that the nostalgia aspect of annual town meetings will be missed this year.

“It’s sad for me that [town meeting] isn’t happening as planned,” Union Town Manager Jay Feyler said. “I love town meetings. It’s very enjoyable, you get to explain to people exactly what these [budget] numbers mean.”

The town meetings are an essential part of how those more than 300 towns operate.

At the meetings, townspeople vote on a warrant that consists of a long list of articles representing the town’s line-by-line budget proposal, as well as matters such as granting the select board the authority to apply for grants and borrow money. People can ask questions about certain expenditures and offer suggestions directly to town officials.

While turnout for these meetings varies from town to town, there is no way to guarantee that less than 50 people — the current state-imposed cap for gatherings — will show up.

“The upside of a secret-ballot town meeting is there could be higher turnout,” Conrad said. “The downside is that one of the beauties of the classic New England town meeting is there can be deliberation, discussion and compromise. When something is in black and white on paper, it’s usually a yes or no vote.”

When the secret ballot votes will occur will vary from town to town, but some — such as Camden and Union — are aligning their local election with the state election on July 14. Conrad said a majority of towns with June town meetings will likely hold a secret-ballot vote.

For many towns, this will be the first time that they’re doing this much municipal business via a secret-ballot system. But Camden Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell said they’re expecting a larger voter turnout than a typical town meeting would draw.

Camden has a population of about 5,000 people; however, only about 60 to 100 people attend the annual town meeting. Caler-Bell said the town has already received an unprecedented amount of absentee ballot requests for the July 14 election, including both the state ballot and the town meeting ballot.

“It’s a very difficult time of year. Students are ending the school year, there are a lot of celebrations around graduation, so it makes it very difficult for a lot of people to participate in town meetings,” Caler-Bell said. “By being able to vote by secret ballot, that’s going to be a lot more people voting on the budget than typically happens. I think it’s going to be a great test on whether this is something the [select board] will want to consider in the future for expanding the ability for people to participate in local government.”

However, there are some concerns with voters understanding budgets being presented to them in this form. “You always have a risk on a paper ballot of things failing because people don’t understand what some of the items mean,” Feyler said.

To try to explain the budget beforehand, some towns such as Union and Thomaston are planning public hearings that will be held via Zoom before the scheduled vote. Feyler is also working on putting together a PowerPoint presentation that will be available on the town’s website.

Union will also hold an in-person town meeting when it is safe to do so without attendance restrictions, to take care of smaller housekeeping matters such as budget committee nominations.

The town of Hope is tentatively holding its town meeting July 21, though it was not immediately clear what would happen if more than 50 people showed up for the meeting. Town Manager Sherry said, “Things change all the time so this plan could change at any time.”

For some towns that typically have a very small resident turnout, annual town meeting plans are going forward as usual, like in Portage Lake, where 23 people attended an outdoor annual town meeting last week that was held on a tennis court, where people sat 6 feet apart.

Portage Lake officials asked residents to bring their own chairs to the meeting.

Watch: The 102-year-old who survived the Spanish flu and died from COVID-19

[bdnvideo id=”2982202″]