Manager vs mayor question headed for ballot

BENNINGTON — Bennington voters will consider whether to scrap the town manager manager/select board form of government for a mayoral format.

A binding referendum on the question was assured with submission of enough signatures to secure a spot on the annual ballot in March. Supporters fell 38 votes short of the required 453 names — 5 percent of registered voters — during an initial count last week at the town clerk's office, but more than enough to make up that deficit were submitted on Monday.

"It looks like it's going good," said Mike Bethel, one of the lead advocates for a mayor.

"The reason is that we need change in Bennington," he said. "The economy is going nowhere and the people of the next generation need a break."

The ballot question, drawn up for Bethel by attorney Paul Gillies, a former deputy secretary of state, would create a so-called "strong mayor" form of government. It would eliminate the town manager's position and replace it with an elected mayor but leave most other aspects of the current government charter in place.

The referendum also includes the phase: "The mayor shall have the power to make or break a tie, and shall have the power to veto any action of the Selectboard."

That provision drew sharp criticism members of the town Charter Review Committee, which is examining the current charter for possible revisions but hasn't taken a position on the mayoral option.

"I liken it more to a monarchy than democracy," said co-Chairwoman Sean-Marie Oller during a meeting in October.

Other committee members also were critical of the petition, especially the lack of a public input process, such as the format the group has used in discussing and recommending a series of revisions for submission to the Select Board. None of the seven committee members supported the mayoral format as specified in the referendum question.

The Select Board expects to consider a package of changes — many minor language revisions but also a local option tax provision and other more significant alterations. The board will then decide which revisions to place before voters at the March meeting.

The charter group will hold its last scheduled meeting this evening at the town offices and plans to file a report with recommendations to the Select Board by the end of December.

Town Manager Stuart Hurd, who has served in the post since 1992, said Tuesday of the referendum, "If one reads the petition, it appears to create a mayoral position with absolute veto power over the legislative body with no override provision. That strikes me as a system with no checks and balances and all power residing in only one individual. That's not a good governance structure."

Select Board Chairman Thomas Jacobs concurred, saying, "I think basically that he [Bethel] is on a fool's errand. I think we have a pretty strong system of government now, and it will be better with the [pending] charter revisions."

But Bethel contended that "the mayor system would spark interest and would say we do want to grow, and it might lead to investment in Bennington."

With a mayor, he said, "the voters of Bennington would be in charge" and could decide at the polls "whether he or she is doing a good job."

The mayor idea has surfaced every several years in town, with supporters arguing it would increase accountability in government and provide a more visible point person to promote Bennington. Bethel has been involved in past efforts to convince voters to make the switch — all of which were defeated at the polls.

The mayoral format was rejected in March 1998, when 1,345 voters favored it and 1,687 voted against, and in March 2003, the format went down to defeat again, 1,730 votes to 1,062.

Bethel began advocating for another vote during a Select Board meeting in late 2016, but the petition he and others circulated this year is unlike the prior referendums in that it is binding and apparently would become an amendment to the town charter.

Bethel said details concerning the length of term for the mayor and other aspects would have to be worked out over the next year, with the election of the first mayor expected to take place in March 2019.

As with all government charter changes, the Legislature and governor would have to approve the revision.

Hurd now works with a seven-member select board, with each board member elected at large. The manager can hire and manage employees, and the board hires the manager and approves policies and overall budgets.

The current charter specifies that the manager not be political, stating in part: "The manager shall be chosen solely on the basis of his/her executive, administrative and professional qualifications," and adding, "The manager shall not take part in the organization or direction of a political party, serve as a member of a party committee, nor be a candidate for election to any public office."

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


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