Public to weigh in on mayor option for Bennington
The binding referendum, which was submitted through a petition drive led by advocate Mike Bethel, seeks to replace the town manager's position with a so-called "strong mayor," who would have veto power over actions of the select board.
The hearing, set for 6 p.m. at the Bennington Firehouse, will be the first of two hearings on the proposal. Another is scheduled for Feb. 5 at the same time and place.
"I hope people will express their support," Bethel said this week. "I hope the silent majority will come out and vote in favor of the mayor."
He pointed to the more than 450 voters who signed the petition to place the proposal on the ballot as a strong show of support.
Antipathy toward the initiative among elected and appointed town officials appears to be unanimous, however, with no one on the Select Board, other boards or commissions or town office staff members publicly voicing support for a mayor.
Critics generally contend that town government is being run effectively as is, and that the mayoral format as proposed is ill-conceived and hasn't been vetted through a public process. It is proposed as an amendment to the town charter, replacing the professional manager's post with an elected mayor.
The seven members of a Select Board-appointed charter review committee that developed a set of less drastic charter amendments last year, also have registered opposition. One or more members of that group are expected to attend both public hearings to explain their charter review process and the conclusions reached.
Bethel also believes voters will be influenced by recent mistakes acknowledged by longtime Town Manager Stuart Hurd in the construction of a salt shed last year near the new town highway facility.
"Why would we want a mayor instead of a manager?" Bethel asked in a column sent to the Banner. "There is no better proof of this need than the events of the last few weeks. The manager built a salt shed in a wetland without state permits. The Select Board says it's not guilty; it's the manager's fault. The board takes no responsibility. That is sadly true."
He added, "Bennington has no one to lead us, no one to speak for the town, and no one to be held responsible for mistakes and failures. Fingers are pointed in all directions, and nobody is responsible."
Hurd said he is the one who authorized construction of the shed before an expected state permit arrived for work in a wetlands buffer zone, which has opened the town to a possible fine from the state Agency of Natural Resources.
The Select Board met with Hurd in executive session over the matter but has yet to announce what decisions, if any, were made concerning the manager. The ANR likewise hasn't announced any decision on possible fines relating to the now-completed and permitted salt shed.
Vote set for March 6
The ballot question will be acted on during the annual election on March 6. If passed, the town would have one year to decide on such issues as the term of office for the mayor before electing the first mayor in March 2019.
Unlike past town referendums on the mayor issue, this one is binding. It was written by Bethel's attorney, Paul Gillies, of Montpelier.
Voting on the charter revisions recommended by the charter committee in its December report will likely go before voters at a special town meeting in June, the Select Board has decided. Of course, some could be rendered moot if the mayoral question passes.
That report is posted on the charter committee's page on the town website, at http://benningtonvt.org.
In two nonbinding town votes, the mayoral format was rejected in March 1998, when 1,345 voters favored it and 1,687 voted against, and in March 2003, 1,730 votes to 1,062.
In his own column in the Banner last week, Hurd said in part, "If you read this [ballot] article, it is specifically designed to do away with the manager's position replacing the manager with an elected mayor, one who `has the power to veto any action of the Select Board.' It doesn't contain any veto override provisions thereby rendering the Select Board, the remaining elected representatives of your community powerless. In my opinion, that is a recipe for disaster. Good government relies on the checks and balances between the legislative and administrative functions of the government."
Select Board Chairman Thomas Jacobs has said of the mayor proposal, "I think we have a pretty strong system of government now, and it will be better with the [recommended] 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."
Concerning the veto issue, Bethel said, the mayor wouldn't allow absolute power, as he or she couldn't enact proposals without a majority vote of board members. But the mayor would have a check on proposals from the board with a veto, he said.
As with all government charter changes, the Legislature and governor would have to approve the revision.
Hurd, who has been manager since 1992, works with and his hired by the 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.
Managers can be fired with notice at any time by a majority of the Select Board.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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