The Commons

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.

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