Charter change vote in June

BENNINGTON — With the idea of mayoral government temporarily off the table, the Select Board has scheduled a special town meeting for June 5 to consider less drastic changes.

The board on Monday also scheduled two hearings on the town charter revisions recommended by an appointed citizen committee after the group's review of Bennington's government charter.

The hearings were set for April 23 and May 14, although officials said that schedule could be altered if the board determines more time is needed to finalize a ballot proposal.

The board had hoped to place the charter changes before votes during the annual March meeting last week, But they postponed that because of a charter amendment calling for an elected mayor of Bennington, which was placed on the ballot through a citizen petition.

That proposal was shot down March 6, with 1,483 opposed and 954 voting in favor.

Although the idea of a mayor also went down to defeat in 1998 and 2003 in nonbinding referendums, supporters almost immediately vowed last week to refine their proposal and try again, as early as the November election (see related article).

What will be submitted?

Whether all of the charter committee recommendations are submitted as is to the voters will be discussed by the board on March 29. Board members have the option of tweaking recommendations or dropping some before finalizing the town meeting ballot.

According to Chairman Thomas Jacobs and Assistant Town Manager Dan Monks, a standalone item — such as proposing a local option tax — could be removed if it proves controversial enough to possibly sink the entire set of revisions.

Monks added that charter review consultant Jim Barlow recommended against trying to split up most of the committee's revisions vote on them separately, citing the interwoven nature of the numerous changes.

In a March 6 memo to the board, Town Manager Stuart Hurd, who was on vacation and absent Monday, recommended that the option tax proposal "be separated from this vote and voted at a later date, perhaps next March. It may prove too controversial."

Language changes, updates

Many of the proposed revisions clarify language and update definitions throughout the charter document. Other proposals would likely to have a more substantive impact.

Among the latter are a recommendation authorizing the board to propose local option tax initiates. Such authorization requires a voter-approved charter amendment.

The taxing option allows a town to add 1 percent to state taxes on merchandise sales, rooms and meals or alcohol sales. After collection of the taxes by the state, the town would receive 70 percent of the additional revenue generated.

In its report the charter group did not try to specify which sales categories should be included for the tax, or whether the revenue should be designated to a specific town budget item, leaving those decisions to the Select Board.

If authorized, the board would be able to develop a local option tax package and submit that to voters for approval.

The accountability factor

Partly in response to calls from supporters of an elected mayor for greater accountability for officials, the committee recommended annual reviews for the manager and contracts for that post of no more than three years, after which they must be renewed.

Recommendations also call for the board chairman to assume an official role in representing the town at all ceremonial events and for an absentee policy allowing removal of board members who do not regularly attend meetings.

Jacobs and members of the review committee, who met with the Select Board Monday, urged members of the public to familiarize themselves with the recommended changes prior to the upcoming public hearings. They noted a low number of public comments received by the committee during its months-long review process and public hearings.

The full report, committee meeting minutes and backup materials are posted on the town's website.

In addition, committee co-chairs Sean-Marie Oller and Robert Plunkett explain the review process and the report's conclusions in a CAT-TV video available online.

Monks said Monday that the board could make revisions or delete aspects of the ballot proposal up until 20 days before the June 5 vote. He said Barlow recommended that any changes be made prior to the second public hearing.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and Email: @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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