Select Board unanimous in opposing mayoral proposal

BENNINGTON — After hearing more comments from the public, members of the Select Board were unanimous Monday in stating their opposition to a proposed "strong mayor" form of government.

The board held a second hearing on a binding referendum on the March 6 town ballot, which would overturn Bennington's town manager/select board format and replace the hired professional manager with an elected mayor.

That referendum was placed on the ballot through a petition drive spearheaded by advocate Mike Bethel and is designed as an amendment to the town charter document.

While each board member recommended a "no" vote on the proposal, several remarked that the issue had produced an impressive amount of public debate and involvement, which sometimes is not evident during board meetings.

The sentiment that produced the proposal also is similar to what prompted the Select Board to appoint a Charter Review Committee in July to recommend changes to the town charter, said Jeannie Jenkins. Those reasons included a desire to make the manager and board members more accountable for the successes and failures of local government.

"I think it was a very good turnout," said Jenkins, who counted 26 speakers during the two public hearings on the mayor question.

But she said that, unlike the charter review process undertaken last year by an appointed committee, the mayoral question did not stem from such a public process. Echoing other speakers, Jenkins said she was "terrified" by the prospect of a single person "voted in in a popularity contest" holding the power the proposed mayor would wield.

Criticism from those against the idea has focused on a provision in the ballot question that states: "The mayor shall have the power to make or break a tie, and shall have the power to veto any action of the Selectboard."

The proposal also would make the elected mayor "responsible for the management of the administration affairs of the town, in the same manner and with the same powers and responsibilities as the town manager ... ."

That could leave Bennington open to a leader with veto power who has no administrative experience, several speakers said in recording their opposition.

But proponents of the change urged residents who see the current system as failing the town to vote for this significant change when they have the chance.

Joey Kulkin once again called on the town's "silent majority," many of whom he said are "afraid to speak up" for fear of possible retaliation, to cast their votes in favor.

"The power to change our broken system is in your hands," he said.

A good test, said proponent William Stewart, would be to try to name "one thing in the past 15 years" that the current government system "has done for Bennington."

He also called for term limits, saying "25 years is just too long," an apparent reference to the tenure of long-serving Town Manager Stuart Hurd.

"Both sides have made good points," said board member Chad Gordon, who said the issue has drawn the biggest turnouts of any issue over the past year.

But the proposal needed more vetting and seems "incomplete," he said, prompting him to oppose it.

Chairman Thomas Jacobs termed the referendum wording "confusing," and said it wasn't created through a public process.

"I don't think it serves a useful purpose," he said.

Jeanne Conner stressed the importance of voters researching the mayor question and talking to people before voting, and that each person consider their motivation in casting ballots — hopefully opting for what will make Bennington a better community.

As during the first hearing, on Jan. 29, most of the residents speaking were opposed to the proposal.

Joseph Schoenig thought the idea of tossing out the current format seemed like junking a car because of a flat tire, when making the needed repairs makes more sense.

For Libby Harris, a principal concern is that the mayor would have veto power over the elected seven-member board.

She saw a need for greater accountability, but said that is addressed in the proposals offered by the Charter Review Committee, which include a three-year, renewable term for the manager and annual manager reviews by the board.

Harris also suggested that greater board oversight of decisions is needed concerning permitting and similar determinations made by the manager.

Hurd's decision last fall to authorize construction of a salt shed near the new town highway facility before a wetlands buffer zone permit was issued by the state has been cited repeatedly by proponents of a mayor as a lack of accountability in the current system.

The manager has apologized for the decision, which he said was made by him without informing the Select Board. The town is awaiting a decision on whether the state Agency of Natural Resources will issue a fine over the shed project, which eventually received a permit in early January.

Daniel Malmborg, who served on the charter committee, termed the mayor ballot article incomplete, lacking such details as how long a term the mayor would serve. He said campaigns for the office also could insert a divisive element into town political life.

"The current format is not perfect but it is working," he said.

Former board member Greg Van Houten said his fear is that a mayor could spark the kind of partisan atmosphere "now poisoning our country."

Those who think a mayor would be better should "take a more thoughtful approach" in proposing the change, he said.

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


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