Bethel bid for no-signature ballot petitions tabled

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BENNINGTON — After receiving a letter of concern from Town Clerk Cassandra Barbeau, the Select Board tabled a citizen request to allow placement of ballot questions without the required signatures from 5 percent of registered voters.

The board on Monday discussed a request that was backed by mayoral government system advocate Mike Bethel, who has begun a signature drive to place another referendum before Bennington voters. He asked that the signature requirement be waived in light of the COVID-19 epidemic.

The request came in light of the state's decision to waive the normal collection of nominating signatures for candidates seeking legislative and statewide office in 2020.

In her letter, Barbeau said she had conferred with Will Senning, director of elections in the Secretary of State's Office, and confirmed that "there have been no temporary statutory changes to Vermont law regarding this matter" that would allow waiving of signature collection for ballot petitions.

She added that Bethel's petition seeks to change Bennington's governmental charter to allow a mayoral form of government, and that the charter states "petitions shall be signed by at least five percent of the voters."

Charter change sought

Bethel has said he wants to question to go before voters as a binding referendum during the November election or during the annual March town meeting. That would mark his third attempt to bring about a change from the town manager/select board form of government through a charter change, after two defeats at the polls.

The issue also was rejected in nonbinding referendums prior to Bethel's involvement, in 1998 and 2003.

Calling into the videoconference board meeting Monday, Bethel said he was "disappointed" that the board allowed Barbeau to convince them to table the request.

"OK, I withdraw the request," he said. "I'll go out and get the signatures the normal way."

But he argued that the gathering of signatures should be waived to avoid the chance it would further spread COVID-19.

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Bethel contends that a change in town government is needed, because a directly elected mayor would be more accountable to voters than the current seven-member board and appointed town manager.

`Tread very carefully'

"As a board, I recommend that you tread very carefully with this," Barbeau wrote. "This could very easily open a can of worms, so to speak."

She said board members have already received a request to "defund the Bennington Police Department" in a proposed ballot referendum.

And she questioned whether the town might be confronted with many other controversial proposals if signatures were not an issue.

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"The petition signature requirements are in place for a reason," Barbeau stated. "Please do not tamper with it."

Bethel has also filed petitions in two of the past three years, she noted, "with negative results, on the same issue that has been voted on four times."

In addition, petitions for the March election are not due until late January, she said, which would allow several months to gather signatures safely during the epidemic.

As for voting in November, which Bethel said is his first choice, "from a town clerk's perspective, a local ballot this fall is a poor decision and a logistical nightmare."

Barbeau has said her office is receiving a record number of absentee ballot requests in a year when the Secretary of State has taken steps to make it easier to vote by absentee ballot by mail.

During the meeting, Town Manager Stuart Hurd the board members, "I would encourage you not to think about placing this on the November ballot."

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The clerk and election officials already face "an overwhelming" amount of work, he said, without adding a separate local ballot on the mayoral proposal.

"Local questions belong on the town meeting ballot," Hurd said.

Because it is a charter change proposal, said board Chairman Donald Campbell, it would also require at least two public hearings, further tightening the timeframe for gathering the required signatures and scheduling two hearings with time for posting prior to the November election.

He added, "This [idea] has been considered before. I don't believe we should make an exception."

Gathering signatures — more than 469 are needed given the current registered voter total — is also "a test of seriousness" that would discourage frivolous petitions, Campbell said.

Bethel said Tuesday that he has more than 100 signatures thus far on his petition, adding that he believes the town will legally have to place it on the November ballot if he gets the 5 percent total in time.

He said he will be outside the polls during the Aug. 11 primary asking for signatures.

The Select Board also could vote to place it on a ballot without a signature drive, Bethel contends.

Board member Bruce Lee-Clark said he wanted the request from a citizen be discussed in open session in the interest of transparency before any decision was made.

"All I am saying is that gathering signatures could have a health effect," he said, adding that he is not optimistic the threat of COVID-19 and the need for social distancing will have lessened by early 2021.

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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