Select Board wants more time to weigh charter options

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BENNINGTON — Facing a Jan. 5 posting deadline, the Select Board has delayed submission of proposed town charter changes to Bennington voters.

Meeting for the first time since receiving recommendations from the Charter Review Committee, board members decided Wednesday not to place any of the suggested changes on the March annual ballot. Instead, they will continue to discuss the proposed revisions and seek public comment through April, then consider posting a June special town meeting with no other items on the ballot.

Other than a tight deadline for the board and town attorney to review the proposal, simply readying it for the printer and submitting the package to the Bennington Banner in time for posting would be challenging, Town Manager Stuart Hurd told board members.

In answer to questions, he added that, while the charter group has been studying the issues involved for six months, the Select Board hasn't formally reviewed them nor gathered comment about the revisions proposed.

The committee recommended a number of language or style changes to the 26-page town charter, but also a half-dozen more substantial proposals, some requiring background information for voters to consider.

The option of presenting the significant changes piecemeal in March would be problematic, Hurd said, in that the background information about each article would make for a lengthy and possibly confusing ballot.

"It is a really complex ballot if you break out the questions," he said.

Hurd added that at least three or four proposals are potentially controversial, meaning that if the report was submitted as a package, heavy voting against any of those items could sink all of the revisions.

In its report, the charter group recommended allowing 1 percent local option taxes, adding accountability provisions for the town manager and select board members, and establishing a defined ceremonial role for the board chairman.

The volunteer committee did not recommend a "strong mayor" form of government and elimination of the town manager position, which is proposed in the binding referendum that was certified this month for the March ballot. That question was placed on the ballot through a citizen petition.

"I think we need to have dialogue" about the proposed changes," Chairman Thomas Jacobs said. "It would not be fair to the public without that."

Board members Don Campbell and Jim Carroll had initially raised concerns about trying to meet the 60-day posting requirement for the March ballot.

"It is a really great document," Campbell said of the charter group's recommended changes. "It really holds together."

But, he added, "Very few of these [changes] couldn't wait another six months."

Carroll said he was concerned the board would "risk seeming to be ramming this down the public's throat," since many voters haven't been focused on the charter committee's meetings.

Jeannie Jenkins said she wasn't sure how soon to place the proposals before voters but felt "we still have three months" to present the changes to the public prior to the March meeting.

She added that, after six months of charter committee meetings and televised hearings, letters to the editor and social media postings on the issues, "this would absolutely not be ramming this down anyone's throat."

A delay until the November ballot "might risk losing people's attention if we drag it out," board member Jeanne Conner said.

"But I would rather err on the side of transparency," Carroll said, "and have a more thorough discussion."

Eventually, Jacobs suggested holding a special town meeting in May or June, rather than wait until the November election. After more discussion, it was unanimously decided to aim for a vote by the end of June.

Board members also noted that by April they would know the fate of the mayoral format referendum, and, should it pass, whether they there might be a petition calling for a revote.

In the interim, Jacobs said, the board can continue to discuss the charter group's recommended changes and gather public input, including during the two required public hearings on the mayoral format question.

Board members said they believe voters will pay closer attention to the proposals now that they have reached the Select Board level and could land on a town ballot.

Sean-Marie Oller, co-chairwoman of the charter committee, who attended the session, recommended soliciting support from area lawmakers and other officials who are in favor of the committee's changes and/or opposed to the mayoral format question. She noted that the late Timothy Corcoran, a lawmaker and later longtime town clerk, was influential in persuading voters to reject previous ballot articles calling for a mayor in Bennington.

During their meetings, none of the charter committee's seven members came out in favor of the mayoral ballot question. The group did, however, recommend a more ceremonial role for the Select Board chairperson, who would represent the town during events but would remain a part-time official.

Oller said following the meeting, "I am pleased the Select Board voted to accept the committee's final report, and that the board will vote on the charter changes after educating the public. It's important that the Bennington citizens know and understand what changes are being presented to create a stronger town government."

The committee's report and additional information 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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