Election Day observations

Bennington goes to the polls?

In Tuesday's election, the town of Bennington considered a major overhaul of local government, a drastic switch from a town manager/Select Board system to a mayoral system with an elected chief executive.

In addition, the proposal called for a "strong mayor," with veto powers over actions of the Select Board that opponents termed dictatorial and supporters argued was what Bennington needs.

By any definition this issue was a crucial one for any town to consider, but we wonder how many residents were paying any attention at all — or ever bother to learn about their own local government.

The turnout? Of the town's 9,104 registered voters, Town Clerk Cassandra Barbeau said 2,437 cast ballots in the election — exactly 26.7 percent.

Sorry, but that would be a pathetic turnout even for a primary vote or special town election with a dull agenda.

Part of this is plain old apathy, which seems to be spreading, or maybe a reflection of anger or frustration with "the system," or the "status quo."

But wasn't a radical change of government enough to bring out more of those fed up with the current format? You would think.

And there's the fact so many people get their information from a hit-or-miss mish-mash of social media, rather than from a few common news sources, like the newspaper or local radio or cable TV. Which makes everyone have to guess who is reading or watching what and how much anyone in Bennington or across the nation has in common anymore.

And there's the fact that the tone of "debate" since the advent of online commenting has demonstrably sunk lower with each election cycle, a likely turnoff for many.

Whatever the reasons, this is a trend that has to be somehow reversed, assuming we still care about democratic self-government.

The future for town clerks?

A ballot article proposing that the Pownal town clerk position become an appointed one, rather than elected, was decisively rejected Tuesday, 434 votes to 296. But that doesn't mean change in that position in Pownal and elsewhere is not worth considering.

The reasoning behind the idea — which has cropped up in several Vermont towns since the Legislature allowed that option last year — has to do with a lack of accountability for an elected town clerk or treasurer who is neglecting his or her duties, is doing a poor job or is unable to do the job for some reason.

A case in point is illustrated in a VTDigger article printed in the Banner today concerning Putney and two other towns.

And there's the still unresolved case from the town of Coventry that helped spur new state legislation. A former clerk and treasurer there remains under investigation after local and state officials estimated that more than $1 million in town funds was apparently missing.

Pownal's situation is nothing like that. It involves a longtime clerk who was ill for many years and could not come to the office for the past year, and did not keep up with payments to the state for its percentage of license fees.

While those overdue payments have since been paid to the state out of the clerk's office income, and the newly elected clerk is credited with keeping up with current payments, officials are still awaiting the town's annual audit report with the hope any lingering questions can be put to rest.

The point, according to the Select Board members who voted to place the article on the ballot, is that elected clerks oversee their own finances independently of the board and the town budget, and therefore there is no required annual audit and no requirement for the clerk to report on office finances.

The fee payment system for clerks is at best an outdated system dating from a long-ago, less complex era of Vermont history.

Opponents in Pownal argued effectively that the town clerk should remain independent of the board and elected, not appointed, and that sentiment certainly prevailed on Tuesday.

But there are other options, including the modest change Shaftsbury made in 2017. That town voted to keep elected clerks but to also have all license fee revenue go through the town budget, and to pay the clerk a salary instead of a percentage of fee payments.

With this format, clerks are protected as well from fallout from any mismanagement of license revenue. Any issues would be noted in the annual town audit, allowing the clerk to make changes or updates in the operation of the office before the problem worsens.

Such a proposal might have generated a lot more support if placed before Pownal voters this year.


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