It’s no secret that I believe we need to change Bennington’s town charter to a different form of government. If Bennington wants to grow and prosper, we need a proactive, elected official leading the way, among other changes.
At some point our long-term town manager will want to retire. He has done a very good job but the Select Board shouldn’t wait to start the discussion for a replacement until after he retires. We need to take an honest look at what we need now, to see how best our government will serve our community in the future.
If we choose to stay with a Select Board form of government, shouldn’t we ensure that the Select Board has a more active role in governing? After all, these seven are our elected leaders. The board should play a larger role in hiring personnel, for instance. As it stands now, the charter gives that responsibility to the town manager. Do we want a new town manager to have as much power?
The Select Board should deliberate with the community before Mr. Hurd retires, not after -- long before we need to scramble to find a replacement. Avoiding this topic isn’t responsible. We seem to kick the can down the road too much lately.
A few months ago the manager hired a new community development director. The board had little say in that process. It didn’t set the salary, and it had only a limited role in the job description for this position. Do we the people want this to continue?
Our charter opens with a preamble. This is what it says:
"The people of Bennington reaffirm faith in Government of the people, by the people, and for the people ... to improve the quality of life for all people."
Isn’t it time we respected this principle in how was we are governed. Isn’t it time to get the people more involved? It can only make things better. There are many way that we could add to the charter to make government more responsive and responsible.
For instance, our charter lacks a conflict of interest provision. We have been lucky over time to avoid the kind of abuse that other communities have had to deal with, but when we need direction on this point, we ought to be able to look to the fundamental law of the town for direction.
We have initiative in our charter, but it is unfortunately limited to nonbinding advisory votes. Our own capacity to affect decisions essential to the town is now limited to elections of officials, but there are critical questions that ought to be decided finally by the voters, and there should be a petitioning process to place those questions before town meeting.
In conversations with my friend and lawyer Paul Gillies, we have discussed the limitations of the Bennington charter. It isn’t a bad document, but it could be so much better, if it were written to ensure that the voters have a deciding vote on critical questions.
Our charter ends with a section entitled, "Charter review committee." It authorizes the Select Board to appoint from five to nine inhabitants of the Town to review the charter and recommend changes as "necessary or advisable for the purpose of improving the operation of Town government." It’s time that section was activated.
I urge the Select Board to appoint that committee now, and charge it to come up with broad and brave ideas to address our basic challenges for the future.
They say sharks need to keep moving in order to survive. A town needs to keep moving to survive as well. We risk becoming stagnant if we don’t challenge ourselves with new ideas from time to time. That time is now. We need to be able to dream for the future.
Mike Bethel lives in Bennington.