Voters reject mayor for Bennington

BENNINGTON — Voters decisively rejected the idea of a mayor for Bennington, swatting down the proposal by a margin of 1,483 to 954.

The vote on this persistent local issue was the third here in 20 years, but it marked the first time residents faced a binding referendum. A town charter amendment was proposed through a petition initiated by advocate Mike Bethel and would have forced creation of a mayoral format.

Supporters gathered more than 450 signatures to place the question on the annual ballot, but the mayoral format was also overwhelmingly opposed by those in town government, including the entire Select Board.

"The town which has not needed a mayor since it was organized in 1778 can move forward with the vision of implementing those important projects which hold so much promise for a vital community," Select Board Chairman Thomas Jacobs said Tuesday.

Reached after the vote, Bethel said he was disappointed, but "I have not given up."

He said is considering another effort next year, this time holding public forums to better explain the mayor proposal and to further refine the question to answer criticism received this year.

"I thank all the people who voted for it," Bethel said, "and hopefully we can convince more voters next time."

Town Manager Stuart Hurd, whose position would have been eliminated in favor of an elected mayor, said after the vote, "I think the outcome was welcome — from my perspective, obviously. I think this indicates the town is moving in the right direction."

He added, "There is some discontent in the community, but I think it is not what the supporters of this made it out to be."

The manager since 1992, Hurd has now endured three attempts to overturn the manager/Select Board governmental format for a mayoral one, beginning in 1998.

Hurd himself became a central campaign issue for referendum supporters. They cited his admission in January that he had authorized work on a salt shed at the town Department of Public Works facility last year without waiting until a final wetlands permit was received from the state.

The permit was eventually received in early January, but the action opened the town to a possible fine from the Agency of Natural Resources, which has yet to announce a decision.

The ballot question generated often bitter commentary on social media and a running debate for months in letters to the editor.

During two public hearings on the ballot question, most of the speakers were opposed to the idea of a mayor, citing general satisfaction with the current government and misgivings about details of the proposed change.

Some who spoke said they consider Hurd's decision on the permit a serious mistake, but one that was offset by more than two decades of effective management for the town and not a reason for his dismissal.

After Hurd issued a statement on the salt shed permit, the Select Board met in executive session with the manager and afterward rejected a raise in the new budget from his current salary, $108,472.

Board members have not revealed what disciplinary action, if any, might have been taken, terming the matter a personnel issue involving an employee.

`Strong mayor' proposal

The petition called for a "strong mayor" format, with the chief executive having veto power "over any action of the selectboard," with no stated provision for an override by the board.

Opponents said that provision would give too much authority to an elected official who might also lack any managerial experience — as opposed to a hired manager who has met the job qualifications.

While Bethel and others said further details for a mayoral format could be worked out over the next year prior to the first election, critics insisted that that information should have been available prior to the election Tuesday.

Turnout for the Bennington election was 2,437 of 9,104 registered voters, said Town Clerk Cassandra Barbeau, or 26.7 percent.

In two previous considerations of a mayoral format — which supporters contend would better focus accountability on a single person and create a spokesperson to promote the town and local economy — the referendums were nonbinding.

The mayoral format also was rejected in March 1998, when 1,345 voters favored it and 1,687 voted against, and in March 2003, with 1,062 voting yes and 1,730 against.

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


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