Bennington charter change ballot vote is still on

BENNINGTON — Questions raised this week about the dearth of backup information on absentee ballots apparently won't delay a planned June 5 vote on a set of government charter changes.

However, the Select Board now is considering a June 4 information session to answer any lingering questions residents might have.

The board has held two public hearings on the charter change package, the second on Monday. Neither drew any questions or comments from the public about the charter proposals.

Town Manager Stuart Hurd said Monday that he would seek legal advice on the ballot wording, after the issue was raised during a Select Board meeting. Sean-Marie Oller, co-chairwoman of a town Charter Review Committee that last year proposed the changes in the document, told the board she was disappointed with the lack of a summary on her ballot.

Oller, Select Board Vice Chairman Donald Campbell and others said they had received absentee ballots that simply asked for a yes or no vote on the several charter changes as proposed.

Hurd said he'd assumed the ballot wording would be similar to the posted election warrant, which included a detailed description. He said he was concerned the differences between the ballot and the warning might raise legal questions that could "throw the vote into jeopardy."

For voters at the polls on June 5, he added, a full copy of the charter and a summary of the changes will be available in voting booths.

Resident Joey Kulkin recommended at the meeting that the vote be postponed and the changes re-warned, contending the election now was "tainted," as some people had voted without having the information before them.

Select Board Chairman Thomas Jacobs responded that he tended to agree, pending a legal opinion.

"I'm with you," he told Kulkin. "I don't want to be voting on anything that could be questioned."

But asked Wednesday for an update, Hurd said the state Secretary of State's office had "indicated that the ballot is legal, and therefore, the election moves forward without change."

He also said Jacobs, who could not be reached Wednesday for comment, is considering calling for a June 4 informational meeting on the evening before the voting.

Concerning the ballot, Hurd added, "The law differentiates between what is required for the warning and what may be included on the ballot. That's what led to the confusion."

He said Town Clerk Cassandra Barbeau had checked earlier with the Secretary of State to confirm her understanding of the ballot requirements.

Hurd said in a column sent to the Bennington Banner that his initial confusion during the Monday meeting was because the law differentiates between what must appear on the election warning, which is his responsibility, and what must appear on the ballot, which is the clerk's responsibility.

"As it turns out, we were both right," he wrote.

Oller said on Wednesday that despite issues she raised at the meeting about the ballot, she supports the charter changes recommended by the seven-member review committee.

She also said of the proposed June 4 floor meeting, "I do think that is helpful."

Oller also noted that the the charter group's review drew little comment from members of the public, as did the two Select Board public hearings.

Among proposals that have drawn comment and some opposition are authorization for the Select Board to consider a 1 percent local option tax on any or all of the four categories allowed by the state — sales, meals, rooms and alcohol. The June 5 vote does not seek to add any new taxes but authorizes the board to consider proposing a package for submission at a future town meeting.

Oller said she would have preferred that proposals like that be separated so that voters could consider them separately.

But Hurd said officials learned that separating only a few changes out on the ballot might not be allowed under state law, although it would be legal to separate each of the altered sections on a single ballot.

The charter group had earlier determined that such a list would not be practical because some recommended changes involved two or more existing sections of the charter.

A copy of the Bennington Charter document is posted on the town's website, at Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and Email: @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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