Bethel again pushing a mayoral format

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BENNINGTON — Prompted in part by the town's hiring of a consultant to examine the Bennington Police Department's policies and procedures, mayoral government advocate Mike Bethel says he is coming back for another shot at overturning Bennington town government.

Bethel this week began distributing copies of a petition to place a binding question on the town ballot, calling for a switch from the town manager/select board form of government to a mayoral format.

Presented as an amendment to the town charter, the change would eliminate the professional manager's position and create an elected mayor's position, leaving the Select Board intact but with a different role.

Bethel said the wording is the same as in the proposal voters turned down in March 2019 by a 306-vote margin, but he believes the time is right for another attempt. That election marked the fourth time the idea of a mayor for Bennington has been rejected at the polls since 1998.

`Consultants not needed'

The initiative was spurred in part by the Select Board's recent hiring of the International Association of Chiefs of Police to study Bennington Police Department policies and procedures, Bethel said, as well as the board's current consideration of hiring another consultant to help implement changes within the BPD to enhance community policing policies.

The IACP was hired "to determine whether there was evidence of policies, procedures, or operational practices within the police department that created opportunities for unfair, discriminatory, or biased policing activities," the report states.

"We don't need consultants," Bethel contends. "That's what we have a highly paid town hall staff for. If they don't know how to run the town, then let's just get rid of them and hire consultants all the time."

Bethel has generally defended the police department, saying "there are some problems, just as there are everywhere."

Allegations of racism within the BPD were leveled after local police failed to charge anyone with a crime in 2018, after complaints of racial harassment and threats against former state Rep. Kiah Morris and her family. But those racial allegations were wrong or exaggerated, Bethel said, and led to a $66,000 police study he believes was unnecessary.

"There are problems in our town, but I don't believe we are a racist town," he said.

`Ready for change'

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"People are ready for change," Bethel said, as he dropped off petitions in the downtown Tuesday afternoon. "But it is up to the people to set their own course, their own destiny."

He added, "We don't need RAD [Rights and Democracy-Vermont] to tell us how to live our lives in Bennington."

The organization has launched an online petition, which calls for Police Chief Paul Doucette and Town Manager Stuart Hurd to be fired and for Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell to recuse himself from discussions about implementing changes in the department. Without those changes, the petition states, real policing reforms won't be possible.

However, Campbell on Monday disagreed, saying that both officials are working to implement changes in the BPD, and that, regardless, it is up to the Select Board to direct town employees in how to conduct policing operations and to mandate changes if necessary.

The board on Monday also said discussions are underway to hire Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, to assist in implementing changes recommended in the IACP study report. Action is possible on that proposal during a scheduled board meeting June 15.

Mayoral system

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Bethel, as he has been in the past, was critical of the seven-member board for what he called ineffective leadership and lack of accountability to voters, as compared to a directly elected mayor.

"A mayor would have to have it," he said, "because after three or four years, a mayor would have to verify why he or she is in there."

He also again contended that a mayor could better represent the town on economic issues and in general advocate more effectively for Bennington.

Contacted Tuesday, Hurd said he hadn't seen the ballot petition yet, but added that Bethel "must be trying to capitalize on the times."

The petition will require approximately 500 signatures from registered voters to be placed on the ballot, or 5 percent of the town's voter roll. That currently stands at 9,645 voters, but Town Clerk Cassandra Barbeau said the number typically rises significantly before a November election.

She added that local petitions are voted during the annual March meeting, meaning Bethel's bid to change the government would have to wait until 2021.

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Bethel said he had hoped for a November vote, but he and fellow supporters will nevertheless submit the signatures for an annual meeting vote if that is required.

Petition wording

A "yes" vote on the proposed charter amendment would not automatically change town government to a mayoral system. Voter approval would insert into the town charter the option for a future change of format.

A specific mayor proposal would have to be brought at a future town meeting, and if approved by voters, would then replace current provisions concerning the town manager. Voters would subsequently elect the first mayor to a three-year term at the following town meeting.

The ballot proposal states in part: "The Select Board shall have the authority to override the mayor's veto by a vote of five members of the board taken at a regular meeting. Within 30 days of the vote to override, voters may petition for a binding referendum on the issue by a petition signed by 5 percent of the voters. At a special meeting held within 60 days of the receipt of the petition, the voters shall decide whether to uphold the mayor's veto."

Other wording includes that, "The mayor shall be responsible for the management of the administrative affairs of the town, in the same manner and with the same powers and responsibilities as the town manager, as stated in [the current charter]."

In addition, the proposal adds, "Once the mayor takes office, the town manager system of governance shall end for Bennington."

The mayoral format was rejected in March 1998, when 1,345 voters favored it and 1,687 voted against, and in March 2003, with 1,062 voting yes and 1,730 against. Both of those voters were nonbinding referendums.

In March 2018, the question was proposed as a binding charter amendment and decisively defeated on a vote of 1,483 to 954.

Bethel and others returned with a modified charter proposal in March 2019, adding an override provision and other revisions, but that proposal also was defeated, with 1,133 votes against the proposal compared to 827 in favor.

Currently, Bennington is one of 54 Vermont communities with a municipal manager format, in which the manager is hired by the select board but then typically has authority over hiring of employees and oversees the budget after it is adopted.

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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