WOODFORD -- About 20 people attended Wednesday's Select Board meeting to discuss a proposed town charter to give Woodford voters authority to recall elected officials.
The charter discussion was generated by a year-long dispute between the Select Board and Ron Higgins, who is the clerk and treasurer in town. Members of the Select Board have said Higgins' refusal to attend Select Board meetings in recent months -- even upon their request -- has kept them in the dark regarding financial questions and made it so they cannot sign warrants or set the municipal tax rate because they do not have the grand list.
Higgins was at Wednesday's meeting, during which he said that there is no requirement for the positions he fills to attend meetings. He also said he has had discussions with other town clerks and treasurers and has heard it is not customary to attend Select Board meetings.
Because Woodford lacks a town charter -- which is not uncommon in Vermont, particularly for towns as small as Woodford -- it is governed entirely by state statutes. Statute does not allow the Select Board or voters to strip an elected official of his or her position prior to the expiration of his or her term.
The proposed charter presented for the first time to the board Wednesday by resident Ed Shea would change that.
"What a charter will do is prevent the voters from having their hands tied in the future by one individual in this town," Chairman Ryan Thurber said. "This charter, in a nutshell, is giving power back to the voters. Without having a governance charter, voters' hands are tied."
The proposal, which would need to be approved by voters and then the Legislature to take effect, is based on existing charters for the towns of Springfield and Jamaica.
Among the 22 sections of the charter is a section titled "recall of elected officials." In it, the Select Board may call a special town meeting after it receives a petition signed by at least 15 percent of registered voters requesting a town vote to remove an elected official from office.
In addition to a positive vote, removing an official would require at least one third of the registered voters in town, or as many voters who cast ballots when the official was elected, would have to vote at the special meeting.
If the town did remove an official, the office would immediately be vacated and the Select Board would then have to call a special meeting within 45 days to fill the vacant position for the remainder of the term. If the term expires within 75 days of the recall, it would remain vacant until the regularly scheduled annual meeting.
All three members of the Select Board said they were in favor of a charter, as did nearly everyone who packed the meeting hall at the town office.
"The town really had its hands tied. The town has not been able to function because of control or personalities," Selectmen Steven Wright said. "The voters are the ones we are governing, but that doesn't seem to be the way here. [The only time that is true] is at elections, but what do you do in the meantime when you have a serious problem and the town has got their hands tied and the town can't function in six months or a year in between that election period?"
The only member of the audience who openly opposed the idea of a charter was Higgins.
"Why do we need a charter? We're not Burlington, we're not Rutland, we're not Bennington. We are a small community that works well, except right now there's a glitch, but I don't think we need a charter," Higgins said. "We are protected, we have dialogue and we have responsibilities through the handbook that came out through the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and the Vermont statutes. I really think that that's enough."
Others said the size of the town does not matter. "A small town also can be strangled by one, or two, or three individuals," Wright said.
Others in attendance pointed out that the handbook is very lengthy and vague, while a charter would be specific to Woodford.
"This takes any fear of the Select Board going on a witch hunt, let's say, or any other individuals having control that is out of balance with the voters," Shea said.
In addition to the charter, the board and audience agreed a personnel policy and job descriptions for every town position must also be created. Part of the controversy that has been going on since last fall in Woodford was caused by Higgins admittedly ceasing many of the duties he used to do voluntarily.
The board reduced the treasurer and clerk salary in this year's budget but put money aside for someone to do the duties Higgins claimed were not a part his responsibilities. If job descriptions and personnel policies were in place, Shea said, it would settle those types of disputes.
"Because there has been an issue between (Higgins) and the Select Board about what (his) duties are as town clerk, my feeling is since some of those duties are customary and (he does not) have to do them, that upon or prior to election if there was a personnel policy that stated what the elected officials were supposed to undertake to do, then there's no question as to what is voluntary and what is mandatory," Shea said.
Woodford's state representative Bill Botzow said at the meeting he would not advocate for no against a charter, but said he would carry out the will of the town in the Legislature. Botzow said the Legislature sees about a dozen charters being proposed or changed each legislative session.
After a discussion that lasted just over an hour, the Select Board unanimously agreed to continue the conversation at its next meeting.
Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi