Bethel submits petition to force vote for mayor


BENNINGTON — Advocates hoping to replace the town manager/select board form of government with a mayoral format fell 38 voter signatures short on Monday, but they fully expect to place a binding referendum on the March election ballot.

Mike Bethel, one of those spearheading the petition drive, said 476 signatures were submitted to the Bennington town clerk's office, a total expected to be more than the 5 percent of registered voters required.

However, Clerk Cassandra Barbeau said Monday afternoon that, due to a number of duplicate signatures and others disqualified for different reasons, the total certified by her office was 415.

She said it's likely that some people signed the petition twice since it was circulated outside the polling place during two separate local elections, in October and November, and some voters apparently signed twice.

Bethel said he has no doubt the final signatures will be gathered before the deadline for town meeting ballots in January.

"We will get them; we just wanted to see where we were," he said.

A longtime advocate of switching to a mayoral form of government in Bennington, Bethel said he wants an official "who will be accountable to the people," through the ballot box. He believes the current format doesn't offer enough accountability and that is reflected in a lack of economic progress in Bennington.

The referendum would be binding, Bethel said, and would force an amendment to the town's government charter to basically eliminate the town manager's post in favor of an elected mayor.

He said the process would require determinations as to the length of term the mayor would serve and other details in time for election of the first office-holder in March 2019.

No other provisions of the charter would change, he said, and the town would remain a town, not become a city, and continue to have a select board. However, the ballot question specifies that the mayor would have veto power over actions of the board and could vote if necessary to make or break a tie.

"This is not to change to a city or have a council," Bethel said. "But there would be a mayor, and I believe the term will be for four years."

Attorney Paul Gillies, of Tarrant, Gillies & Richardson, of Montpelier, a former deputy secretary of state, drew up the ballot question, Bethel said. Gillies could not be reached for comment.

'Strong mayor'

In addition to representing the town, the mayor would assume the managerial duties of the current town manager position — an aspect of the post that is indicative of the so-called "strong mayor" form of government. That likely would have a mayor with authority to manage the annual budget and hire or fire employees, with a town board that votes to approve the budget bottom line and possibly ratifies hiring of administration employees.

In Vermont, Rutland has a strong mayor format, with an elected mayor and city council. That format was chosen, Bethel said, because it is "the strongest form of mayor you can get in Vermont."

The petition as written for Bennington would give the mayor "the power to make or break a tie, and shall have the power to veto any action of the Selectboard."

This and other provisions has drawn criticism from some local officials, who contend that no drastic governmental change is needed, especially one enacted without a great deal of input from the public as to its provisions and impacts.

Bethel said he sees an urgent need for a turnover, contending that a mayor could act decisively and better represent the town to attract new businesses to the area. He insisted that none of the current economic development initiatives, including the $53 million Putnam Block redevelopment plan, "are going anywhere," and a new approach is needed.

In another charter-related development, the Select Board appointed a seven-member Charter Review Committee over the summer. That group has been going through the current 26-page charter and preparing a list of recommended revisions for consideration by the Select Board and possible submission to the voters in March. The group has scheduled a public hearing on charter issues for tonight at 5:30 p.m. at the Bennington Firehouse.

While discussing a mayoral option for Bennington in October, none of the committee members spoke in favor of a strong mayor format, although there was some support for consideration of a so-called "weak mayor" format.

The latter would involve a mostly ceremonial position, possibly the select board chairman, who might be directly elected to that post by voters, and who would represent the town but not have authority to manage the budget. Managing authority would still reside with the town manager.

In Vermont towns or cities with this format, a town or city manager is hired to oversee the day to day functions of local government.

Charter committee members also were critical of the idea of drastically changing local government through a binding referendum, as opposed to the deliberative and more modest changes they've been considering for several months.

No votes were taken during the charter committee meeting, but each member addressed the issue.

Robert Ebert said that, in talking to residents about the mayor idea, he has heard "basically two answers ... People feel that a mayor would bring vision, leadership and accountability to town government. The other thing people say is that [Town Manager] Stu Hurd has been here too long."

But Ebert added, "I look at the town, and I think the town is being run pretty well, so if that is what too long means, sign me up."

Stuart Hurd has been town manager for 25 years, working under a charter provision that allows a majority of the board to remove him at any time after a notice period.

Bethel said Monday that the petition drive is "not against Stu Hurd," but in favor of the mayoral format. He said anyone could run for the office of mayor, including Hurd, Assistant Town Manager Daniel Monks or any other official or town resident.

Committee member Michael Keane said during the October meeting that the mayoral petition was "poorly thought through," and said he isn't comfortable considering a new format before intensive efforts to educate the public on the possible forms of government.

Co-Chairwoman Sean-Marie Oller said of the petition's veto provision, "I liken it more to a monarchy than democracy."

She said Monday, "The submission of Bethel's petition does not change the charter committee's charge. When the committee completes its review, it is anticipated the committee will provide its recommendations to the Select Board which serve to strengthen the accountability of the Select Board and the town manager but do not serve to the change the form of the town's governance."

Select Board Chairman Thomas Jacobs said of the petition, "A very brief reaction to the Bethel petition is I see no significant benefit to a mayoral form of governance for a town the size of Bennington. Engaging an individual as our town manager who brings expertise in overseeing the critical operations of the town is, and can continue to be, the most efficient form of government."

A vote on the mayoral question would be the third in Bennington since the 1990s, but the first binding referendum. The proposal was defeated in the prior townwide votes.

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 and @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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