Ballot questions include mayoral option, clerk appointment
Bennington's town manager/select board system is pitted against a proposed mayoral government format in a binding referendum going before voters on March 6.
Also to be decided during annual elections are whether Pownal should eliminate its elected town clerk position in favor of one appointed by the Select Board, and a nonbinding referendum calling for stronger local action to reduce the effects of climate change that about 30 Vermont towns will consider.
In Bennington, the elected mayor versus appointed manager question has come up before, but past town votes were all nonbinding, asking whether voters supported the idea of a mayoral system. All were defeated at the polls.
This year, however, a petition spearheaded by advocate Mike Bethel would force a binding charter change calling for a "strong mayor" with "the power to veto any action of the select board."
He and others contend a mayor would be more accountable to the voters and better able to bring about positive change, especially concerning the local economy.
The proposal apparently has little or no support among town officials or staff members, but it was placed on the ballot through a petition drive that collected more than 450 voter signatures.
"The old guard is against it," Bethel said this week, contending that officials are using "scare tactics" about the wording of the article — especially concerning the mayor's veto power — to "protect the status quo."
Those opposed, speaking during two public hearings on the proposal and in letters to the editor and other postings, argued that an elected mayor position could open Bennington to increased partisanship and to a person unqualified to manage a town government, chosen "in a popularity contest."
But Bethel contends that a "yes" vote on March 6 would "only be the first step" in the process of creating a mayoral system.
"I want people to be well aware that this is only step one," he said. "Step two is when we can define what kind of mayor we want."
That process would take at least a year, he said, and would address such issues as the length of term for the mayor, a recall process and whether a veto override is needed.
He argues that as the article is written the Select Board would "still control the purse," and the mayor could not make any decisions without support from a majority of the board.
"The proponents of the article should find no comfort in the blind hope or expectation the Vermont Legislature will save this flawed ballot offering by amending or revamp it if by some stretch of the imagination it is approved as they have petitioned," said Select Board Chairman Thomas Jacobs. "It is an article which provides the community with but an unchecked form of government which has no place in our community. Notwithstanding the limited view of the few this community can and is moving forward."
A town Charter Review Committee, which worked for several months last year to produce a report recommending a number of less drastic charter changes, also was unanimous in opposing the mayor plan on the ballot. Members argued in part that it was not vetted in a public process as their recommendations during a series of meetings and public hearings to gather input.
The recommended changes also include steps designed to increase accountability by limiting town manager terms to three years before a renewal is required and mandating annual manager reviews.
The board has put off submitting recommended charter changes to the voters until June, when a special town meeting is expected.
Bethel and other mayoral format supporters also cite the recent admission by longtime Town Manager Stuart Hurd that authorized the start of a highway department salt shed project last year without a needed wetland buffer zone permit from the state in hand — leaving the town open to possible fines — as a sign of a government that is not accountable.
The board met in January with Hurd in executive session but has not announced any decision or action relative to the permit issue, terming it a personnel matter. The permit eventually was obtained by the town, in early January.
Pownal Town Clerk Karen Burrington has been in ill health for several years and unable to come to the office for more than a year while some overdue license fee payments to the state built up. This situation prompted the ballot proposal to make the elected position an appointed one.
Officials believe all related payments to the state are up to date, pending findings of an annual audit of town accounts or receipt of new information. But a majority of the Select Board voted to place the article on the ballot, contending the clerk's office should be part of town government and all fees collected run through the town budgeting process, rather than have the clerk handle that paperwork separately.
They also argued that the clerk's finances should be included within the town budget in order to make that part of annual audits of town books, and making it likely any future problems would be caught earlier and staffing assistance could be arranged if necessary.
Two of the five board members voted against placing the ballot article, however. Ron Bisson said he wasn't opposed to having the clerk's finances handled through the town budgetary system but believes the clerk should be elected and not hired at the discretion of the select board.
Assistant Town Clerk Julie Weber has been acting clerk since last year and is running unopposed for a three-year term. But that elected position would be eliminated within 45 days of the election if voters approve the change, and the Select Board would then determine the salary and benefits and other details of the job and hire a town clerk.
Currently in Pownal, the elected clerk receives a stipend from the town and also keeps a percentage of the license fees collected for various services provided through the office. The balance of fee income is distributed in specified percentages to the state and to the town.
The climate resolution, developed by 350Vermont and up for a vote March 6 in some 30 Vermont towns including Manchester, Dorset and Shaftsbury, calls on towns and the state to make commitments to halt new fossil fuel infrastructure, like gas pipelines. It also calls on communities to work toward meeting the state's goal by 2050 least 90 percent renewable energy sources with firm deadlines,and to encourage weatherization of buildings and other efforts to reduce energy consumption.
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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