Mayoral government once again proposed for Bennington

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BENNINGTON — It was a deja vu moment all over again in Bennington.

At the request of Michael Bethel, a community activist and longtime supporter of installing a mayoral form of government here, the Select Board agreed Monday to discuss the idea again at an upcoming meeting.

Bennington has considered a switch from a select board/town manager form of government several times in the recent past, twice voting against the proposal since the late 1990s.

"I would like to have it go to the voters as an advisory question," Bethel said.

A town vote in favor of a change would only be the first step in a lengthy process involving amending the town charter. The proposal would then have to go back to the voters once exact amendment wording is decided upon. Final steps would include approval by the state Legislature.

Bethel has prepared a citizen petition designed to force an advisory townwide vote at the annual town meeting in March, but he said he'd prefer that the board directly include such a referendum on the annual warrant.

Chairman Thomas Jacobs said he would place the issue on a board meeting agenda for a discussion within the next month.

Board member Michael Keane said he would favor a communitywide discussion on the issue to help residents understand the arguments for and against each form of municipal government.

"What I am hearing in town is that what we have is not working," Bethel said Tuesday.

Referring to recent business closings in the downtown and slow progress on economic development proposals, he said Bennington would benefit from "a strong mayor" form of government and a mayor "serving at least a four-year term."

A strong mayor format would mean an elected mayor replacing the town manager, who is hired by the Select Board, capable of hiring employees and appointing non-elected officials. Bethel said his proposal does not require eliminating the select board nor becoming a city, simply replacing the manager with an elected mayor.

But he acknowledged that if voters approved the idea in a nonbinding referendum, the Select Board could either develop the necessary charter amendment wording or form a committee to draft an amendment, which would then be presented to voters.

Unlike a manager, a mayor would be directly accountable to voters, Bethel contended, and could more effectively represent Bennington and advocate for needed change, especially on the economic development front.

Keane said Tuesday, "I believe there needs to be an open discussion. I believe a number of people in town are talking about the mayoral form of government, and I want to make sure everyone [can participate] in a thorough discussion."

He said he'd also like to hear from someone from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and from the town attorney on the differences between the two governmental formats, and also "on the timeline" involved in amending the town charter.

"I want to make sure they understand this doesn't happen overnight, and it must be approved by the Legislature," Keane said.

"Bennington is searching for its future," he added, "and trying to focus on economic development."

Jacobs said Tuesday that he would like to have the board discuss other charter amendments as well if the idea of mayoral government is to be considered. There might be sections of the charter that require updating or clarifying language, he said, but declined to specify possible changes at this time.

That would likely involve a charter review committee to make recommendations, the chairman said. "On the mayoral question," he said, "I would like to look at that as a whole, rather than as just one issue."

In fact, the proposal has surfaced periodically several times in recent Bennington history, reaching the point of a votes in 1998 and 2003, where voters rejected the proposals at the annual town meeting.

The mayoral form of government came closest to winning approval in March 1998, when 1,345 voters favored it and 1,687 voted against the format.

In March 2003, the mayoral format went down to defeat again, 1,730 votes to 1,062.

The town today has a long-serving town manager, Stuart Hurd, who was first appointed to the post in 1992, and 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 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."

A manager can be removed without cause by a majority vote of the Select Board with 90 days written notice.

Jim Therrien covers Southern Vermont news for New England Newspapers Inc. He can be reached at jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com.


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