Petition considers mayoral system for Brattleboro

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BRATTLEBORO — Residents are being asked to sign a petition that would prompt a vote on whether the town should have a mayor.

"It's a question to see if the town wants a different governance system, i.e., a mayor," said Dick

DeGray, former Select Board member and one of the petition organizers. If there's support, "then you move to second base. And if there's no

support for it, then we stay as we are and steady as we go."

The petition says: "Shall the voters of the Town of Brattleboro advise the Select Board to amend the Brattleboro Town Charter to replace the Select Board form of

governance with that of a mayoral form of governance?"

DeGray said he always felt the community should have a mayoral system. He thought it should have been considered when the town was looking for a replacement for

former Town Manager Barb Sondag in 2013. He recalled talking about it in the 1990s.

For him, the petition is a way to see if there is support. Then a committee might look at how the system would work.

"It's not something that happens overnight or in two months or six months," DeGray said. "It's going to take a little bit of time to change it."

With a population of about 12,000 people, DeGray feels it is appropriate to explore moving to a mayoral system. He said the Vermont Legislature also would need to approve of the change, since it would require a revision to the town's charter. He noted there is no timeline on all the work that would come if the effort finds support.

DeGray described himself as a supporter of both Sondag and current Town Manager Peter Elwell. He said he might not agree all the time with current board members but he respects them.

His worry is that three people decide on hiring and firing the town manager, as votes from three out of five Select Board members are needed to take such actions. He said a mayoral system would allow voters the chance to decide on who will lead the community.

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"To me, democracy allows more people to participate in the process," he said, explaining that had also been the point of petitioning for the question to be on the ballot rather than asking the Select Board to warn a vote.

Town Clerk Hilary Francis said 472 signatures from Brattleboro residents would be needed on the petition for the question to appear on the March 3 ballot. The deadline to turn in the petition is Thursday, Jan. 16.

Dan Yates, president and CEO of Brattleboro Savings & Loan and one of the petition organizers, expects to have all the signatures needed. He estimated having about 70 percent last Thursday.

"If it gets the necessary majority, that's when the real work will begin and decisions made about exactly how this looks," he said in an email. "If it fails to get the votes necessary, then the people have spoken in favor of keeping the current structure. The important thing is, at that point the issue has been democratically decided."

Yates said while Brattleboro is a small community, "we are an economic hub for the region and I felt strongly that it was appropriate to put the matter to the voters of Brattleboro, rather than continuing to have conversations about it without getting the question answered by the people that pay taxes and who should have a say in the way in which our town government is structured and works."

Similar to DeGray, Yates said the effort is not meant to target the current board in any way.

"I give them all tremendous credit for being willing to serve, particularly as I don't think it is anything other than a thankless job in many ways," Yates said. "I do think though that this is an opportunity to hear from the voters on how they feel about the issue. Also, I felt strongly that this should go to the voters rather than to Town Meeting Reps to ensure a broader democratic response."

Brattleboro votes on town budgeting and other issues through Representative Town Meeting, where different districts in town have representatives who vote. DeGray said it has been a struggle to get enough people to run for the positions.

Select Board Vice Chairman Tim Wessel said he thinks it would be interesting to see if residents would like to have a mayor.

"The problem with the petition as worded is that it doesn't specify 'weak' or 'strong' type of mayor (does the mayor work alongside the town manager, or is the mayor also the town manager, for instance?)," he said in an email to the Reformer. "I think a 'weak' mayorship, retaining the town manager position, might work but I would strongly oppose combining those two roles into an all-powerful 'strong' mayor."

Wessel also wondered if there would be a council or board governing along with the mayor.

"If this is the case, I doubt it would simplify Brattleboro politics!" he wrote. "Seems to me that it would cost taxpayers more money as well ... the total paid to the entire Select Board is $17,000 per year ... could you get a good mayor for that?"

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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