Bennington charter bill passes, with key deletions

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BENNINGTON — A comprehensive Bennington town charter revision has passed the Legislature and is awaiting Gov. Phil Scott's signature.

However, the charter proposal had something of a shredded appearance Thursday, absent several items that were approved by the town Charter Review Committee, the Select Board and voters in June 2018 but subsequently deleted during a review in the House.

"Charter was voted out of the Senate," Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, said Thursday morning. "No changes from what the House sent us."

Campion said he and fellow Bennington Democrat Sen. Dick Sears were grateful for quick action on the bill by the Senate Committee on Government Operations, which is chaired by Sen. Jeannette White, D-Windham.

Bennington area lawmakers had expressed concern about the fate of the bill after the House Committee on Government Operations took several weeks to review it and raised a number of objections.

In the end, the House committee reported out the charter proposal but with key deletions, including some referring to the Select Board, the town manager's position, and the Downtown Improvement District taxing authority.

The deleted items included having the Select Board chairman officially act as the representative of the town for all ceremonial occasions; authorizing the board to remove a member for excessive absenteeism; requiring annual board reviews of the town manager; limiting manager contracts to three years, after which a new agreement must be approved; allowing the board to change the boundaries of the downtown district and removing a district tax exemption for residential property in the district except for those that are owner-occupied.

Sears said Thursday evening in an email that some or all of the deleted items are likely to be reintroduced during the 2020 legislative session.

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"The plan is for Senator Campion and I to introduce what was passed by the voters and not included in this year's bill," he said, adding, "We can introduce it as is, unless the Select Board decides they want to revoke those issues."

One of the prominent objections to the Bennington charter revision in the House committee was that it was voted on during a June special town meeting as a package, not as a separate ballot articles listed by charter section.

Committee Vice Chairman Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington, and others contended that the warrant article format did not comply with recently updated state election law.

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Local lawmakers and town officials disagreed, saying that the warrant format was reviewed by the town Charter Review Committee's consultant, James Barlow, a recognized expert on local Vermont governance and charters.

Gannon said that in light of changes the committee wanted to see enacted this year, members "did try to work out a solution," and decided to vote the Bennington charter out of committee — supporting the bill with some proposals deleted.

Gannon said said the deletions related to ensuring voters have a say on specific proposals — including on altering the border of the town's downtown improvement and taxing district or removing a select board member for absenteeism.

The charter revisions, including language updates and changes in most of the documents sections, were put before voters as a single question, said Town Manager Stuart Hurd, because the ballot would have otherwise been extremely long. He said summaries of the changes were included in each voting booth and copies of the full revised charter document were made available for voters.

The revisions as proposed by the Select Board were approved by a 3 to 1 vote during the June special town meeting.

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That approval set up the final stage of the process — review by the Legislature and the governor.

Among the changes approved by the Legislature this year were authorization for the Select Board to put before town voters a 1 percent local option tax proposal and modernization or clarification of the charter language throughout.

Concerning the downtown taxing district, Jonah Spivak, owner of the Hawkins House Craftsmarket, said he and other business owners in and around the intersection of North Street (Route 7) and County Street — referred to as Four Corners North — had hoped the district boundary could be expanded to include that area.

Money raised within the downtown taxing district is allocated to Better Bennington Corp., a nonprofit entity, and used for promotional events such as MayFest and Midnight Madness and for downtown enhancement projects.

"I would favor keeping the [proposed] language that would allow the district to expand to include Four Corners North," Spivak said in an email. "We want to be fully connected with downtown. I'd like to see the streetscape enhancements reaching to Four Corners North. We are a major gateway to town and it makes sense to have the experience of entering our downtown begin at County Street."

Among other businesses in that area are the Bennington Potters complex and the Tap House at Catamount Glass.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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