Wednesday November 21, 2012

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

WOODFORD -- It’s back to the beginning for the Woodford Select Board in its pursuit of a town charter.

After holding three public hearings, putting the charter through considerable review and multiple revisions, the Select Board was told by legal counsel the proposed charter cannot be put before voters because the process began incorrectly.

"It appears to me the town will need to restart the formal process because some procedural steps required by the statute have been missed, or there is insufficient evidence to prove to the Secretary of State that these steps were taken. When in doubt, restarting is the answer," Robert Fisher of the Brattleboro law firm Fisher and Fisher wrote in a letter to the board that was read during Monday’s meeting. "In a nutshell, the process for the adoption for a charter needs to be kicked off by either a petition of 5 percent of the voters or by a formal motion of the Select Board."

In Woodford’s case, the charter efforts were prompted by a proposal brought to the board by resident Ed Shea, with the intention of providing the town a way to recall elected officials.

Fisher was asked to review Woodford’s proposed charter and meeting minutes following the Select Board’s October meeting.

The proposed charter, which is now in its eighth draft form, was prompted by a year-long dispute between Town Clerk and Treasurer Ron Higgins and the Select Board. Communication problems between the two sides led to problems forming a budget in the spring, delays in setting a tax rate, and a number of other disruptions to town business.

The Select Board and some residents researched earlier this year whether it was possible to remove Higgins from his position, but found without a governing charter Woodford must rely solely on state statutes, which do not allow elected officials to be stripped of their positions.

In August, Shea brought the Select Board the first draft of the charter proposal, which included a procedure for voters to recall elected officials. That draft got the ball rolling on the process for the Select Board. According to statute the Select Board should have voted to adopt a charter at that point, but because it did not all of the action since then must be repeated, Chairman Ryan Thurber said.

The board on Monday unanimously passed a motion to adopt the town charter. The next step will be to hold at least two public hearings that must be warned 30 to 40 days ahead of time. A copy of the charter must also be posted in the town office within 10 days of the first public hearing, Fisher wrote.

The board agreed to continue using Fisher for legal advice as the process moves forward, which Fisher estimated would cost from $1,000 to $2,850, depending on the amount of work he is asked to do and the time it requires. The board agreed it would support spending the high end of the estimate if needed.

The board also polled the 11 members in the audience Monday to see if they would support spending up to $3,000 on legal services to assist in the charter process and all but one agreed they would.

Thurber said there is money available in the "legal services" line item of the budget and money that can be used in a line item for additional services.

Even with the delay, Fisher wrote that it is possible for the charter to go through the process and be voted on by residents on Town Meeting Day in March. If residents approve its adoption, the charter would go before the Legislature for final approval in the spring.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi