Absenteeism rule eyed for select board members

BENNINGTON — The Bennington Charter Review Committee is considering a provision for removing Select Board members who are repeatedly absent from board meetings.

Meeting this week, the committee also set dates for public hearings on the charter changes they are considering and added some longer committee meetings during the evening to increase the pace of the review.

Once again, the group discussed on Wednesday afternoon whether it should meet a Select Board request for a report on suggested charter changes by the end of December.

Robert Ebert reiterated his opinion that the group should not strive to meet "an artificial deadline," but continue the line-by-line review into 2018 if necessary. He noted that the charter allows a review committee up to a year to consider changes.

The seven-member citizen group was appointed in July by the Select Board to consider changes and include those in a report to the board. Among major changes floated have been a switch from a manager/select board government format to some form of mayoral government and a proposed 1 percent local option tax that would boost revenue to the town.

Co-Chairman Sean-Marie Oller and other members have indicated they would like to submit a report before the end of the year. She suggested Wednesday adding some longer meetings to the committee's schedule, which now is to meet at the town offices from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. on a weekly basis.

After more discussion, the group decided to schedule a three-hour meeting once a month, to begin at 4:30 p.m. The first longer session was set for Oct. 17.

The committee also tentatively scheduled public hearings on the charter review for Oct. 26 and Nov. 28 and said a December hearing will be added.

Absenteeism rule?

The committee seemed resolved Wednesday to propose a method of removing a Select Board member who is absent for extended periods. Although there is no problem with that at the moment, town officials have said absenteeism has been an issue in the past.

The tentative charter language proposed — pending a review by the committee's consultant, attorney James Barlow — would be to make missing four consecutive board meetings or 50 percent of meetings over either a six- or 12-month period grounds for removal, regardless of the cause of the absences.

The goal "should be to encourage participation" and avoid having a Select Board with six members that could result in tie votes on key issues before the town, said committee member Michael Keane.

Other communities with such provisions include Barre and Rutland, committee members said, and those provisions are being reviewed as possible examples.

Mayor issue

The committee also debated when to begin its discussion of the mayoral form of government, with Ebert saying he believes it should begin immediately. He noted that the committee had postponed that topic until after a Sept. 27 public information session led by Barlow to allow more questions and comments from the public, but that has now been held.

However, co-Chairman Robert Plunkett, Keane and others said that discussion should wait at least until the town manager portion of the charter is review, possibly at the next meeting.

Keane said there "will always be someone to run the operational part of the town," so it makes sense to address other possible charter changes that affect town operations before making any decisions on whether a mayor should be added to the charter and/or replace the town manager.

Some of the mayoral options outlined by Barlow during his presentation include a part-time mayor who is a city council member and fills a ceremonial role, while a city manger oversees daily operations, or an elected mayor who also acts as a city manager, as is the case in Rutland.

An expanded role for a select board chairman also is possible, Barlow said.

Also hanging over the review, Oller pointed out, is a petition drive that resident and mayoral format advocate Mike Bethel has mounted to force a town vote on a mayor format that eliminates the town manager's position.

Oller and Plunkett cited the need to determine exactly what the petition would do if approved by voters at the March town meeting. That topic will be part of the committee's discussion of the mayoral option, Plunkett said.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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