Select Board won't push charter battle

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BENNINGTON — The Select Board decided this week to quit while they are somewhat ahead, rather than push for a legislative rematch over proposed changes to the Bennington governmental charter.

After town voters approved a series of charter revisions and updates in 2018, some of those proposals ran aground in the House Committee on Government Operations, where questions of conformance with Vermont law were raised.

As the legislative session neared adjournment in the spring, a compromise was required to enact some of the changes while deleting others — and to avoid having the entire proposal sent back to Bennington for a do-over.

Left on the table were provisions to have the Select Board chairman officially act as the representative of the town for ceremonial occasions; authorizing the board to remove a member for excessive absenteeism; requiring annual board reviews of the town manager; limiting manager contracts to three years at a time; allowing the board to change the boundaries of the downtown district and removing a district tax exemption for residential property in the district except for those that are owner-occupied.

On Monday, the Select Board briefly discussed continuing the fight in the next legislative session, noting that the Bennington district senators, Dick Sears and Brian Campion, had said they would bring the deleted sections back to the Legislature in 2020.

The Senate had passed the charter vision package as written, but the bill languished for weeks in the House committee.

Asked for a recommendation, Town Manager Stuart Hurd said, "I think the charter changes that were approved are all the very best that we presented ... I think we would be looking at a fight over things that aren't essential to good government."

With expected continued opposition in the House next year, Hurd said, "My recommendation is, let it lie."

If the board wants to change the map of the downtown improvement district, he said — citing the most prominent change that was deleted — it still has the option of putting that out to a townwide vote.

Those who supported allowing the board to make that change said the current process would be cumbersome and lengthy, especially in light of requests from property and business owners to include their sections of the downtown, such as around the County Street-North Street intersection — called Four Corners North.

"It feels like we are getting most of what we wanted," said board Chairman Donald Campbell prior to an agreement to accept Hurd's recommendation. "It feels like this is a hill not to die on."

Sears commented via email Tuesday, saying, "I'm disappointed, but understand. The [town] voters were clear in their support for the changes, and I believe House Government Operations got it wrong. To suggest that the electorate didn't know what they were doing is insulting. For that reason, after consulting with the chair of Senate Government Operations, Senator Campion and I had agreed to sponsor those sections of the charter that did not pass."

Hurd said prior to his recommendation, "It struck me in conversations with the [House] Government Ops Committee that they don't trust local select boards to do the right thing," but that it seemed to be mostly differences in the interpretation of state law.

As an example he said the lawmakers were concerned that allowing a select board to expand the downtown taxing district without a townwide vote could lead to expansion "just to collect more money."

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He also noted that the Senate had passed the charter changes as written, Secretary of State Jim Condos had raised no objection to the ballot wording, and the town's consultant, James Barlow, a recognized expert on charters and local government, helped draw up the package.

"They [the committee] were going to send it back, for us to have to do a charter change all over again," said board member and state Rep. Jim Carroll. Carroll, state Rep. Mary Morrissey and other Bennington delegation lawmakers had followed the bill closely and pushed for passage in the House.

Carroll said it took considerable political pressure just to win the changes that were approved in a last-moment compromise, adding, "We got the meat and potatoes of what we wanted."

Referring to a key sticking point — that the entire charter change package of many pages was not placed on the Bennington special town meeting ballot but was summarized — Campbell said that idea "seems ridiculous."

The secretary of state and Barlow were among those who contended the summarized Bennington ballot for the June special meeting met legal requirements.

The charter revisions, including language updates and changes in most of the document's sections, were put before voters as a single question, Hurd had said, because the ballot would have otherwise been extremely long.

He said summaries of the changes were included in each voting booth and copies of the full revised charter document were made available for voters.

The revisions as proposed were approved by a 3 to 1 vote margin at the June meeting.

Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington, and others on the House committee contended, however, that the charter warrant article format did not comply with recently updated state election law.

Gannon said after the compromise in May that, in light of changes the committee wanted to see enacted this year, committee members "did try to work out a solution," and decided to vote the Bennington charter out of committee — supporting the bill but with some proposals deleted.

The full House then passed that shortened version.

Gannon said the deletions were related to ensuring that voters have their say on specific proposals — including altering the border of the town's downtown improvement and taxing district or removing a select board member for absenteeism.

Among the changes that ultimately were approved by the Legislature this year and signed by Gov. Phil Scott were authorization for the Select Board to put before town voters a 1 percent local option tax proposal and modernization or clarification of the charter language throughout.

The changes stemmed from a months-long review of the town charter by a committee appointed by the Select Board, which produced a report to the board and recommendation in December 2017. The board later approved the changes and sent them to voters in June.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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