Charter group votes to allow fire department option

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BENNINGTON — Bennington's Charter Review Committee voted Wednesday in favor of allowing the Select Board the option to forming a partially paid fire department.

The current government charter, under a section identifying the powers of the board, authorizes it to organize or reorganize the Bennington Fire Department, but also specifies that "such department shall be a volunteer fire department ... ."

Committee member Robert Ebert said he was not comfortable with that provision, because it prevents the board from organizing a partially paid department that might include personnel who are not volunteers. That option should be available without requiring a charter change, he said, if a situation arises in which paid personnel become necessary.

Co-Chairwoman Sean-Marie Oller said she wasn't necessarily opposed to the change, but noted that it might seem "a huge change" to some members of the volunteer fire company and might require "a lot of explaining" during public hearings on the proposed charter revisions.

The seven-member committee was appointed by the Select Board to review the 26-page document for possible changes, either to the language or the substance of the governing provisions.

Town Manager Stuart Hurd, who is not a committee member but was invited to attend the group's meetings, said that there has, in fact, been "discussion of whether we should pay the [BFD] chief."

He said the town already provides paid clerical assistance for the chief, as increasing state reporting requirements have made escalating demands on the time of the elected volunteer department leader. Hurd said he believes those types of reporting responsibilities will continue to increase.

Committee members Jonathan Cohen and Co-Chairman Robert Plunkett cited a desire to seek input from members of the BFD before voting to recommend the change. But the group eventually approved that revision and other language changes in the section on Select Board powers.

Members noted that it is understood there will be at least two public hearings on their report, and that any revisions must be approved by the board and ultimately through a townwide vote, probably during the March annual meeting.

The committee decided to change the wording concerning the fire department to allow organization of a "volunteer or paid" department, taking a suggestion from P. Lynn Green. That same change was inserted in a provision covering the town contracting with other fire departments for services, such as with the Bennington Rural Fire Department, which is operated as a fire district.

The question was raised of whether in the future the BFD might have trouble finding enough volunteers and then need paid personnel, but Hurd said that has not been a problem in Bennington. He said there currently are about 60 members of the company.

The committee also agreed Wednesday to hold a televised public information session on Sept. 27, with charter consultant James Barlow expected to give a presentation and address questions from residents.

Public hearings on the committee's proposals will be scheduled in mid-October and mid-November, members decided, and their goal is to report to the Select Board in December.

The committee, which is meeting Wednesdays at 11:30 a.m. at the town offices, also is taking questions or comments during meetings and has a section on the Bennington town website providing information and allowing for online comments from residents.

Information can be found 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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