Mayor issue heating up Bennington election season

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BENNINGTON — Battle lines are forming in what promises to be an acrimonious debate over a ballot question that could overturn Bennington's town manager/select board form of government.

A referendum submitted via citizen petition would eject the professional manager's position from the town charter and insert an elected mayoral post with strong executive powers — including the authority to veto actions of the select board.

Opposition from many town officials was evident this week as the Select Board set two required public hearings on the March ballot question. Concerns raised have focused on the unvetted manner in which the change is being proposed — through a binding referendum from mayoral advocate Mike Bethel that was submitted through a petition drive.

If approved, it would create an amendment to the town charter, apparently leaving other aspects intact while eliminating the manager's position.

Meanwhile, Bethel this week focused on Town Manager Stuart Hurd's admission Monday that he had ordered construction of a salt shed near the new town highway facility without waiting for a pending state wetlands work permit, which finally was issued on Jan. 3.

Bethel asserted that the action was a serious mistake and that other town officials had to be aware the work was undertaken in advance of the permit. Hurd said Monday that he took a chance it would arrive in time so as not to necessitate cancellation of construction agreements at significant cost to the town.

But Bethel contended that other staff members and at least some Select Board members "certainly" were aware of Hurd's decision.

"In my opinion, the manager should be let go, fired," Bethel said, adding that he believes the incident shows the current system isn't working.

Hurd responded Friday, saying in an email, "Board members did not know of the decision to move forward. My statement [Monday] speaks to the reasons we decided to move forward. We had the best interests of the community at heart. We saved some $70,000 in construction costs. We followed the draft wetlands permit and are in compliance with the conditions that mitigate potential damage to the wetlands. The construction actually protects the wetlands more than the parking lot did."

The Select Board met in executive session with Hurd about the issue but has yet to release a report or announce a decision.

In addition, the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Environmental Compliance Division is investigating the town's decision to begin construction without a permit to work in a wetlands buffer zone and fines are considered possible.



Public hearings set

In asking the board to set the two public hearing dates, Hurd noted Monday that legal posting requirements make it difficult to schedule them on regular board meeting nights.

After Carson Thurber and other board members questioned whether the hearings could both be held on the same night, Chairman Thomas Jacobs said, "Frankly, I would love it if we could have them back-to-back, on top of each other, because the essence of this — it is not a process that we want to have to deal with. But it is thrust upon us, so I think we are stuck. Let's do this the easiest way we can but not raise any questions, or have some person be upset with our process or more than one person upset with the process."

The board then approved Hurd's recommendation for hearings on Jan. 29 and Feb. 5 at 6 p.m. at the Bennington Firehouse.

Board member Jeanne Jenkins said she thought it would be useful to have a serious public discussion of the issue and that likely would require more than one hearing date.

Hurd said he didn't believe holding the hearings in one night would meet the intent of the law.

Board Vice Chairman Don Campbell told Thurber he might prefer to hold two hearings on one night, "but I think we should just hold two separate hearings on two separate days and be done with it."

Campbell said he would like to have a public conversation about the mayoral format over the course of a year, but in the case of the petition-activated referendum, the situation "is out of our hands," he said, and the board has to ensure it meets the hearing requirements.

Hurd said the likely format for the hearings would be to take comments from the public until all who want to speak have had a chance to do so.

Jacobs also said he wanted to be clear that the ballot question is "not something we are proposing," and it is unrelated to a months-long review of the town charter by a citizen committee appointed in July by the board.

That seven-member charter group filed a report with its recommended changes in December, and the information can be viewed on the committee's page on the town website, at http://benningtonvt.org.

During its meetings, none of the committee members came out in support of the so-called "strong mayor" format Bethel's petition proposes. Three members who gave a presentation Monday before the Select Board on some aspects of the report, including the mayor, reiterated those concerns.

Objections include that the veto power as printed in the ballot question appears to give the mayor almost dictatorial powers.

The Select Board has decided to put those charter revisions recommended by the committee and approved by the board to a town vote at a special meeting in June. Some of the revisions are related to sentiment among voters that a strong government representative for the town is needed.

Those include a specified lead ceremonial role for the select board chairman and a set, three-year term for town managers, along with annual manager reviews by the board.

"I think we have a pretty strong system of government now, and it will be better with the [pending] charter revisions," Jacobs said after the charter group submitted its report in December.

Hurd, who was appointed manager in 1992, does not face annual reviews or reappointment votes, but he could be dismissed by a majority of the board with a 90-day notice.

Other leading objections to the mayoral plan have been that the town now has a professional manager hired by the Select Board, while a candidate for mayor might have little or no experience in managing a town budget or town operations; and that, unlike the lengthy and public charter committee process, the ballot question did not face similar vetting.

But Bethel said this week that officials were offering deliberately misleading comments on the mayor's role as specified in his referendum, which was prepared by his attorney, former deputy Secretary of State Paul Gillies as a charter amendment.

Bethel said the veto power for the mayor wouldn't allow absolute power, as he or she couldn't enact proposals without a majority vote of board members. The mayor, likewise, has a check on proposals from the board with a veto, he said.

He added that he would like to see a business manager hired to assist the mayor, similar to the school supervisory union business manager.

Several charter committee members and town officials have said, however, that the veto provision sounds dictatorial.

Hurd said Friday: "As to the mayoral question, one need only read it to see that there are no checks and balances in the wording. The mayor 'shall have the power to veto any action of the Select Board.' There are no override provisions. That's a true dictatorship and the reason this should not become law."

Past votes on mayoral plans

The mayor idea has come to a vote in the past as well. Supporters generally argue 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 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.

The difference this year, is that the referendum petition Bethel and others circulated is binding.

If the question is approved, Bethel has 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. The manager's post would be eliminated.

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

The manager 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.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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