Bennington charter group won't discuss a mayor before forum

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BENNINGTON — The Charter Review Committee decided Wednesday to put off any discussion of the mayoral form of government until after a scheduled public meeting on the ongoing review and amendment options.

The committee also discussed term limits for Select Board members and a removal process for those who are absent from meetings for extended periods before tabling those issues pending receipt of more information. The group also will seek input from charter consultant and attorney James Barlow.

The consultant will give a public presentation on charter-related options in Bennington on Sept. 27, and the committee is considering other public forums in October and November to update residents on issues being discussed.

The controversial topic of whether Bennington should change from a town manager/select board format to a mayoral form of government might have come up Wednesday during a review of charter sections on the select board and the manager. But there was general agreement that topic should wait until after Barlow's presentation and input from the public.

Some members appeared ready to discuss the mayoral question. Jonathan Cohen said the group "should not shy away" from the topic and might determine quickly that there is agreement one way or another and then "move on."

But a consensus emerged that the topic will be postponed until after Sept. 27.

The mayoral option was one of those suggested earlier this year when a charter review began to be considered, along with a local option tax.

Committee members said Wednesday that Select Board Chairman Thomas Jacobs has recommended that term limits for board members and a provision allowing removal of board members who are absent for extended period be considered.

The seven-member committee appeared about evenly split on term limits, which Michael Keane — a proponent — said should involve a limit of about nine years on the board.

He said a limit would allow more "younger people a chance to serve," and could have a "refreshing" effect on town government. He added that the proposal could include the option of running again for the board after three years.

Other committee members indicated they were ambivalent or philosophically opposed to term limits, but the question was put off pending consultation with Barlow and further input from residents. Input is encouraged during the group's regular Wednesday meetings at the town offices, at public forums or online.

A comments section can be accessed on the town's website at http://benningtonvt.org/meetings/charter-review-committee.

A decision on whether to create an option for removal of a Select Board member who has been repeatedly absent also was postponed pending further information and input from Barlow.

Town Manager Stuart Hurd, who attends the sessions but doesn't vote on proposed changes, said extended absenteeism by some board members "has been a problem" in the past.

A number of possible issues could arise in adding such a provision, group members said, including legalities involved in removing an elected official, which now is allowable through a recall vote or through the ballot box, and how such a decision would be made and by whom, and under what circumstances of absenteeism.

There was also discussion Wednesday of whether the committee should strive to recommend charter changes to the Select Board in time for voting during the annual town meeting in March.

Citing the slow pace thus far in going over the 26-page charge line by line, Robert Ebert said the group "shouldn't be held hostage" by the Select Board's request for recommendations in time for the town meeting ballot, since the charter itself allows a full year for a formal review.

Because the board did not appoint a review committee earlier, Ebert said, that represents "poor planning on their part."

The group began meeting in late July.

Others, including Co-Chairwoman Sean-Marie Oller, said they felt they should meet the Select Board's timeline as that was announced when the group was appointed.

Keane said "there are many things that need to be corrected in the charter," and other topics where the is no early consensus, might be put off until next year.

"I would have no problem providing a progress report [this fall] to the board," he said.

Also Wednesday, the group added a line requiring an annual Select Board review of the board's own rules of procedure and conduct, also suggested by Jacobs.

The Select Board could accept, reject or modify any recommendations from the committee before submission to town voters in March. The town charter was last amended in 2005, when a recall provision for town officials was added.

The mayoral form of government came closest to winning approval here in March 1998, when 1,345 voters favored a charter amendment proposing the change and 1,687 voted against.

In March 2003, the mayoral format option went down to defeat again, 1,730 votes to 1,062.

Hurd was first appointed to the manager's post in 1992. He is hired by and works with the seven-member select board, with each board member elected at large. The town manager has authority to hire and manage employees, while the board hires the manager and approves policies and overall budgets.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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