The Commons
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Brattleboro keeps citizen petition rules

Town Meeting reps need 15 hours, two sessions to wade through charter changes

Originally published in The Commons issue #87 (Wednesday, February 9, 2011).


BRATTLEBORO—Representatives voted 57 to 26 in favor of the 11-member Charter Review Commission’s recommendation that Selectboard members or School Directors not block non-binding initiatives from going to a town-wide vote on the grounds “that the body considers the matters raised in the petition frivolous or not to be business of the town.”

They voted down an amendment made by Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray to raise the required number of signatures from 5 percent of the town’s registered voters to 10 percent.

The measure was among the remaining 18 articles in the second part of a Special Town Meeting that, in all, spanned two Saturdays and comprised approximately 15 hours of debate on 33 articles. The first installment took place Jan. 22.

Those who gathered on Saturday hashed out issues about the power of citizens and town officials to bring, or block, petitions for non-binding initiatives, ordinances, and referendums.

Petitions have been a hot topic throughout the entire charter review process. Some voting members considered the people’s right to petition as sacrosanct, while others expressed concern about the process, fearing frivolous or illegal petition questions that wasted town resources.

Spoon Agave, a Charter Review Commission member and a representative from District 3, jumped on DeGray’s amendment, questioning whether it was germane to the current discussion.

“It’s the powers of the people that are supreme in our government and democracy, and we cannot allow a couple elected representatives to overturn the power of the people,” said District 3 representative John Wilmerding.

“I don’t want the Selectboard to have the power to deny petitions. Whether or not you feel it’s important doesn’t matter to me. It matters to the people,” said District 1 representative Billie Stark.

“We elect the Selectboard to serve as a filter. And it is necessary. We elect them to represent us, and I trust them to filter out some of these referendums that are not germane,” countered District 3 representative Scott McCarty.

Like McCarty, Corwin “Corky” Elwell, a Charter Commission member and representative for District 3, disagreed with fellow commissioners. He said bypassing the Selectboard on non-binding initiatives was very dangerous, and he raised the scenario of California’s referendum laws and the ease with which citizen initiatives can reach the ballot.

“I’m going to be accused of being anti-democratic, but so be it,” he said.

Town Meeting Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of allowing referendum petitions on the final vote of any warned article.

The charter commission’s original recommendation allowed referendums on any vote, including subsidiary motions.

“This [referendum question] is recent history to most of you,” said Charter Commission member Larry Bloch, referring to the confusion and court case over Moss Kahler’s anti-Pay-As-You-Throw trash collection petition last year.

Subsidiary motions are subject to referendum, Bloch said, because not allowing public oversight is not good, he said.

Town Meeting Representatives, however, accepted an amendment allowing referendums only on a motion’s final vote. It was put forth by McCarty, based on a recommendation by Town Manager Barbara Sondag.

Sondag said accepting referendums on subsidiary motions concerned her, because if a motion receives multiple amendments, the town can be left to sort out contradictory motions.

“It could be very difficult for staff to get everything to work together,” said Sondag.

She said the commission members had asked a number of questions prior to the public meetings about amendments made to the charter revisions for the same reasons.

Sondag added that she wasn’t afraid of the Brattleboro voters, as some had suggested, especially considering her bosses are changed regularly at the will of the people.

“Once again, there’s fear in the air that the public won’t be able to discern the difference between the whole and subsidiary motion,” said Bloch. “The public should be trusted to deal with substantial, not trivial, issues.”

Commission member Orion Barber said he surprised himself by agreeing with Sondag in the end.

“Subsidiary amendments seem like the worst possible thinking to have to hack through,” said Barber, adding he didn’t understand why the Charter Commission ever made that specific suggestion.

Sondag said, in hindsight, the PAYT vote should have been a separately warned article and not part of the whole town budget, which traditionally is voted up or down as a whole.

“The Selectboard can bury anything in a total budget vote. PAYT was a substantial change in service and should have had its own article. There should be some kind of bar set in the charter to say what’s separate, and what’s part of the budget,” said Selectboard Vice-Chair Dora Bouboulis.

District 3 representative Donald Webster said that he supported McCarty’s amendment because it got at heart of Town Meeting, which is about trusting Town Meeting Representatives to make decisions for the people.

Other changes to the petition process approved by the Town Meeting Representatives included lowering the number of signatures required to petition for an ordinance from 20 percent to 10 percent of registered voters and extending the timeline for filing a referendum petition from five to 10 days.

Along with the extended timeline, the representatives approved increasing the number of required signatures from a flat 250 voters to 5 percent of the electorate, a little over 400 at present, according to Town Clerk Annette Cappy.

Representatives approved the procedure voting to preclude board, committee, or commission members from voting when there is a conflict of interest.

The conflict of interest article was a carry-over from the Jan. 22 meeting, where representatives debated the first 16 charter articles. Debate ground to a halt after 6½ hours.

Instead, representatives Kathy Urffer (District 1), Marshall Wheelock (District 2), and George Harvey (District 3), along with Attorney Bob Fisher, volunteered to draft new language for the article and present it at Saturday’s meeting.

The body approved by nine votes to require the Selectboard to submit an annual report on the town’s progress on goals stated in Brattleboro’s Town Plan. They also unanimously approved an amendment from Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray that incoming Selectboard members take office the first Monday after Representative Town Meeting.

The article to allow the Town Manager to appoint the town clerk and making the town clerk a department head passed. Currently, Town Meeting representatives ratify the position.

“This brings the Town Clerk into the fold of the [town] administration,” said Agave.

District 1 representative Charles Cummings disagreed, saying that “I see this one as more of a move to take away the authority this [representatives] group may have.”

Elwell, a former Brattleboro town manager, said disciplining a town clerk usually falls to the town manager and if people expected the manager to have such a responsibility, than he or she should also have the power.

Members approved a procedure for filling vacancies on the school board. Board members would now be able to vote on more than two replacements within 30 days without needing a General Town Meeting.

Representatives voted 38 to 37 against allowing the town manager to appoint the town treasurer, despite voting to allow the appointment of a town clerk. This article passed without any discussion, and Moderator Timothy O’Connor broke the tie vote.

Establishing a Department of Assessment was voted down, and it now will be discussed and assessed by either the Selectboard or a separate committee. The results will be presented at the annual Representative Town Meeting.

“We’re dealing with a very legally entangling subject, and if we don’t do it right, we’ll be in the soup,” said Elwell. 

The decision was based largely on an amendment presented by District 2 representative Leo Barile.

In a 15-minute presentation of his amendment, Barile said he had “fundamental objections” to the commission’s suggestion for a Department of Assessment . 

Barile said one of his concerns was that the commission’s recommendation would move all property reappraisal power to the Selectboard and listers, and take it away from the Town Meeting Representatives. Also, there were no guidelines on how to trigger a town-wide appraisal.

“I never realized there was a Peyton Place of Brattleboro,” said Richard Dudman.

Dudman said it sounded to him as if Barile wanted to set up a second arm of the government independent of the rest of the town. He asked Barile where the inspiration for his amendment was coming from, aside from his dissatisfaction with past appraisals.

The 11-member commission spent three years researching and developing the proposed charter changes. State statute requires towns with charters to review them every 15 years. According to commission members, Brattleboro’s charter received its last comprehensive overhaul in 1984.

The Legislature will vote on the approved charter revisions before the changes become official.


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