A smattering of voters OK charter overhaul

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BENNINGTON — A set of town charter changes that sparked a tepid level of public comment over the past year was decisively endorsed Tuesday by Bennington voters — though not many of them cast ballots.

Town Clerk Cassandra Barbeau reported shortly after the election polls closed at 7 p.m. that the single ballot question was approved, 440 votes to 148, representing about 6.5 percent of the town's 9,166 registered voters.

"I am pleased that the committee's changes were accepted by the voters, disappointed that there had not been more input or participation," said Charter Review Committee Co-chair Sean-Marie Oller.

The package of revisions, which were spread throughout the 26-page government charter, included both minor language or style changes and significant alterations to some sections.

Select Board Chairman Thomas Jacobs, speaking during an informational meeting on Monday night, said the overhaul represented the first major update in the history of the 48-year-old charter document.

Other revisions were approved over the years as specific amendments, but Jacobs said the Select Board asked the citizen review committee last year to go through the entire document, line by line. The appointed seven-member group filed its report in December, and the Select Board essentially placed those recommendations before town voters in a single question, up or down proposal.

In addition to the town approval, the changes will have to be approved by the Legislature and signed off on by the governor. Town Manager Stuart Hurd said that legislative action is unlikely before the next session, beginning in January.

The Charter Review Committee met weekly for several months, beginning in July 2017, and held public hearings prior to completion of a report on the recommendations in December.

The Select Board then held its own hearings before posting a special town meeting warning on the changes. The board initially considered adding the question to the annual Town Meeting ballot in March, but decided to separate out the charter revisions for further review and public comment.

A few changes sparked some criticism, including a change allowing the Select Board to develop a local option tax plan for future submission to voters — something that first required revising the town charter.

Jacobs said he's uncertain whether the board will propose an option tax plan, but if it does the process could easily take more than a year following charter revision approvals by the Legislature and governor next year.

If approved at the state level, the board could then propose a 1 percent local tax on up to four categories of sales — merchandise, rooms, meals and alcohol. The state would collect the revenue along with its own portion of those sales taxes and would return 70 percent of the additional revenue to the town.

Currently, 18 Vermont communities have some form of local option tax.

Other charter revisions approved Tuesday include setting a three-year term for the town manager, after which the contract must be renewed; requiring a review of the manager's performance annually; designating the Select Board chair as head of town government for all ceremonial purposes; adding an absenteeism provision to allow removal of Select Board members who often miss meetings; calling for the board to adopt board rules of procedure and review them annually.

Also, there are revisions calling for the board to adopt policies for the town manager to follow in purchasing and bidding contracts; allowing the board to change the boundaries of the Downtown Improvement District after a public hearing, rather than require a town vote; clarifying that the downtown district's taxes will be levied on all taxable properties except for owner-occupied residential properties; and requiring a charter committee review be undertaken every five years.

Information on the charter review process is available at http://benningtonvt.org/meetings/charter-review-committee/

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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