Charter recommendations sent to Select Board

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BENNINGTON — In its final report, the Charter Review Committee recommends allowing local option taxes, adds accountability provisions for the town manager and select board members and favors a defined ceremonial role for the board chairman.

What the seven-member volunteer committee did not recommend was a so-called "strong mayor" form of government, such as in the format proposed in a binding referendum that was placed on the March election ballot through a citizen petition.

Summarizing discussions on the mayoral question, the committee noted other recommendations that members believe will add accountability for the manager's position, which would be eliminated if the referendum is approved by voters. And the report voices concerns about the governance format as proposed in the mayoral petition.

The committee, which reviewed the existing 26-page government charter over the past six months, wrapped up its work this week and has posted its recommendations to the Select Board on the town's website — along with meeting minutes, discussion summations, public comments received and other back-up information.

The Select Board will meet Wednesday to discuss whether to place all or some of the committee's recommendations before voters on the annual March ballot.

In an executive summary of its recommended changes, the committee noted that a number of other language or style changes are in the full report, not considered substantial but "advisable either to clarify a power or to update language for consistency or readability."

In the section on taxes, the committee recommended allowing the Select Board to propose a local option tax, which would mean adding one percent to the state sales tax (now 6 percent); the rooms and meals tax (each 9 percent), and/or the alcohol sales tax (10 percent).

The board would be authorized to propose adding 1 percent to any or all of those tax categories. After collection of the tax by the state, 70 percent of the revenue would be returned to the town. Voters would then have to approve the changes.

Responding to those who believe an elected mayor is needed in Bennington, the committee recommended "the designation of the [Select Board] chair as the head of town government for ceremonial purposes," a provision several other Vermont towns have adopted.

It was acknowledged that the person likely would be employed full time and therefore and that there should be no requirement he or she attend every public event.

Critics of the current manager/select board format say there is a lack of accountability and no single person is representing the town and being reviewed on regular basis by the voters.

But the committee report notes that the Select Board has authority to hire and fire town managers and review in advance whether the person is qualified to oversee town operations. The report adds: "On the other hand, candidates in a strong mayoral form of government would not be subject to such screenings and qualification requirements."

The report further states: "It was also noted that the current mayoral petition grants the mayor the power to veto a majority vote by the Select Board, which many [committee members] found to be an alarming amount of power granted to one individual."

The committee also recommended language limiting the town manager to three-year terms, after which a new appointment by the Select Board would be required, and requiring annual performance reviews for the manager.

Concerning the Select Board, the committee recommended that the board annually review its rules, procedures and conduct, "both to require that it familiarize itself with the rules and to ensure that they be updated as necessary."

A provision allowing the removal of Select Board members for excessive absenteeism from meetings also was recommended. "The committee recommends that a Select Board member who is absent from four consecutive warned Select Board meetings or 50 percent or more of warned Select Board meetings in any 6-month period be removed from the board," the report states.

The report adds that committee members believe their recommended revisions strengthen the current form of government and add greater accountability.

Also in the report is a recommendation that the Select Board be authorized to change the area of the Downtown Improvement District without a townwide vote, as now is required. The board would still have to hold a warned public hearing before making a change.

And the committee recommended that the commercial properties taxed within the district be expanded to include residential rental properties, but not own-occupied units.

The committee also recommends:

- Appointing a group to review the town charter every five years. The committee noted that the most recent charter revisions were approved in 2005.

- The committee discussed a revision to allow paid firefighters in the event the town found itself shorthanded or lacking personnel with a particular skill within the volunteer Bennington Fire Department. After concerns were raised by members of the department, the committee met twice with BFD members and began considering a format under which firefighters would have a role in the Select Board recommending whether, if necessary in the future, some paid positions would be allowed.

The proposed new language would give the Select Board authority to "organize and from time to time reorganize, the Fire Department under the supervision of a coordinating committee formed by the Select Board from its members. The department shall be a volunteer department, unless an affirmative vote of the majority of the members of the Fire Department authorizes a transition to a paid or combination paid and volunteer department as set forth in a transition plan proposed by the Select Board working with a committee formed from members of the Fire Department. The Select Board shall have authority to continue any existing contract with a volunteer fire department or to enter on behalf of the town into contracts with other volunteer fire departments to provide additional fire protection to the inhabitants."

- Authorizing the Select Board to create ordinances to regulate issues relating to "the vast array of technological advancements and societal changes since the last charter review in 2005 that may provide challenges for our local government."

The report mentions as potential emerging issues Uber, Airbnb, urban chicken raising, drones, e-cigarettes and police body cameras.

- Eliminating a charter provision calling for the appointment of a town constable. No one has been named to the post in many years and town police handle most duties of a constable. Recent requirements in state law also would require significant and costly training for anyone to be certified for the post of constable, the report notes.

Any charter revisions sent on to the voters in March by the Select Board would have to win approval there and later be approved by the Legislature and the governor.

The committee's report, its working charter document with changes and backup information on the review process are posted 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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