Charter committee members oppose 'strong' mayor idea
BENNINGTON — Charter Review Committee members have voiced objections to the so-called "strong mayor" form of government, which is proposed in a citizen petition now circulating among Bennington voters.
No votes were taken during a committee meeting Tuesday, but each member addressed the question that has hovered over the group's sessions since the seven members were appointed in July by the Select Board to review the charter and recommend changes.
A willingness to consider a so-called "weak mayor" government format was expressed, however, but not with significant enthusiasm by members.
A weak mayor format would entail a ceremonial position, possibly involving the head of the Select Board assuming that role, but it would retain the current town manager position with authority to oversee government operations.
In sharp contrast, a petition being circulated by longtime mayoral format advocate Mike Bethel and others is calling for a strong mayor — meaning an elected official who would replace the town manager.
The petition also states that the mayor "shall have the power to veto any action of the Select Board," a line that drew criticism from charter committee members.
"Without some additional due diligence, I would be reluctant to make a recommendation on [a mayoral format] based on our opinions alone," said committee member Jonathan Cohen.
He also said it was not his understanding when he volunteered that the charter review would consider completely changing the local government format.
Cohen said it was fortunate the petition is available "so the public can have their say," but he also recommended that the committee discuss what the Select Board might do to educate the public on the mayoral issue if question goes to a town vote.
Bethel said Wednesday that he needs about 100 more voter signatures to place the mayoral petition on the March ballot and hopes to gain the required 5 percent of registered voters outside the polls for the Act 26 school merger vote on Nov. 7.
He said the question, if approved in March, would also require a committee to work out details like the length of the mayoral term, and that would have to be followed by a second townwide vote in March 2019 before the mayoral format could take effect.
Bethel said the format is similar to the one Rutland has, or "the strongest form of mayor you can get in Vermont."
Other than the eliminated town manager's position, all other aspects of town government would remain the same as in the current charter, he said, with the elected mayor assuming the duties of the manager.
Robert Ebert said that in talking to residents about the mayor idea, he has heard "basically two answers ... People feel that a mayor would bring vision, leadership and accountability to town government. The other thing people say is that [Town Manager] Stu Hurd has been here too long."
But Ebert added, "I look at the town, and I think the town is being run pretty well, so if that is what too long means, sign me up."
Hurd has been town manager for 25 years, working without multi-year contracts under a charter provision that allows a majority of the board to remove him at any time after a notice period.
Ebert would be willing to consider a weak mayor format, which he said could mean simply designating the Select Board chairman to handle ceremonial duties and represent the town, and possibly having the chairman elected directly by the voters, rather than by fellow board members.
"There is a vehicle [the petition] for considering the mayoral form of government," said P. Lynn Green.
She agreed that the committee itself shouldn't consider "turning our form of town government on its head," but added that the group should continue to address charter sections relating to the town manager, such as qualifications for the job and provisions to foster accountability.
Others said they don't believe a petition that hasn't been widely debated — in the manner they've been debating less drastic changes — is a wise method of changing local government.
"I would be very, very concerned if this were written into the charter," Daniel Malmborg said, referencing the proposed mayoral veto.
New approaches might foster a clearer vision for the town, he said, but given the amount of time the group has spent discussing the charter line by line, he was skeptical that a rigid petition format would lead to positive changes.
Michael Keane said the petition was "poorly thought through," and said he isn't comfortable considering a mayoral format before intensive efforts to educate the public on the form of government Bennington has and on what other options are possible.
Co-Chairwoman Sean-Marie Oller said of the petition's veto provision, "I liken it more to a monarchy than democracy."
She said voters would lack concrete examples with which to compare the proposed mayoral format, or to decide "what would be the benefit for the people of Bennington."
"I believe that what I hear in town is that what the people want is accountability," Oller said.
She contended the committee is addressing that through smaller proposed charter changes. Those include an absenteeism provision that could remove Select Board members who fail to attend meetings, annual board reviews for the town manager and a required vote to renew the manager's appointment every three years.
Committee members said issues that could arise in considering a weak mayor format include whether the person would be able to dedicate enough time to the ceremonial/promotional effort, as the part-time select board members currently receive only about $1,400 per year.
Keane said he wonders who would be available for the kind of effort such a post would require. There might be a half dozen residents who could do that well, he said, but they are too busy with full-time jobs.
"I don't see a stable of potential candidates to take us through the next 8 to10 years of mayoral elections," Keane said.
"I have not heard a very strong, forceful or convincing argument as to why we should have [a mayor]," said co-Chairman Robert Plunkett, although he would like to hear those opinions, he said, particularly on creating a ceremonial position.
Plunkett added, "I don't like the idea of a town mayor," saying he prefers that local government retain a town format and feel, as opposed to that of a city.
The committee also discussed writing a letter to the editor explaining members' views of mayoral government options and the changes the group is proposing in the charter.
Oller said members should prepare to address the mayoral question at two upcoming hearings on the charter review and continue to seek input during weekly meetings and online through the charter committee page on the town's website, at http://benningtonvt.org/meetings/charter-review-committee.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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