BELLOWS FALLS—Voters on Dec. 4 overwhelmingly rejected proposed revisions to the Village Charter, the product of more than a year’s work by the Bellows Falls Village Corporation Charter Review Committee, in a turnout of 12 percent of the village’s 1,821 registered voters.
The tally was 212-69.
Amid accusations that suggestions for amendments were ignored during the hearing process, and that private agendas were being played out, the committee did not seem to have gained the confidence of village residents.
Supporters of the final charter revision said “merger” fears were responsible for its defeat, while some opponents ascribed the rejection to the personalities involved in the revision process.
The vote means the original Village Charter stands unchanged. No one has come forward to say whether or when revisions might be reattempted.
“Despite the revision committee’s efforts to encourage questions, no calls or questions came,” said Deborah Wright, village trustee and chair of the Charter Revision Committee. “In the end it became a game of semantics, as all the statutes placed in the charter for revision are currently available as action steps for the board of trustees to move on at any time. We only wished to spell them out in the charter. My answer as to why the charter vote failed would be two words: fear and apathy.”
Selectboard chair and village resident Thom MacPhee said his biggest objection “...was the fact that they gave the Board of Trustees more power [with language that] had the department heads reporting to the Board of Trustees, getting away from the town manager-style of government.”
But, he added, it was “the tone of the whole change,” saying he felt the new language of the village charter provided an opening for making a move to “do their own accounting.”
MacPhee said that “we need a town manager” to oversee everything, and he believed the revisions reflected the private agenda of some of the committee members.
“A lot of changes [former Trustee] Paul Obuchowski had suggested just disappeared as soon as he got out of the office. For [another] example, the town clerk and assistant town clerk went through [the revised charter] and submitted their suggestions and they are the people who have to deal with this charter. They should know.”
Town Moderator and attorney Michael Harty said, “I think it had a lot to do with the timing and the process. It felt like an agenda was being pushed to make the village independent. That was the perception. In the changes, if you read behind the language, they provided a hook to further empower the Trustees,” and get away from the town manager form of government.
However, Wright said that independence for the village “is not economically feasible.”
Jim “Jiggs” McAuliffe said he “felt that the view that seemed to drive this [initiative was] that BF should be an independent entity, giving more power to the trustees and authority [and is] for Bellows Falls, [the] absolutely wrong direction.”
He added that the “provision for a secretary and treasurer to be able to appoint their own assistants; the idea of more employees in the village to take over the responsibilities of the town, was [the] wrong way to go. The implication of the language was to get rid of the village manager and, as such, that it would be better if the trustees ran the village without the benefit of a manager. We do need to have a manager overseeing the village and the town of Rockingham.”
Wright refuted these claims, saying, “there is no lessening on the abilities of the board with the defeat of the charter proposed changes.”
McAuliffe said, “I, along with most people, would be happy to update [the charter] to make it current, but a very small number of people decided they had the power to, and control over the trustees, and they would do it the way they wanted.”
MacPhee, Harty, and McAuliffe all emphatically denied that the thought of merger ever entered their minds during any of their discussions.
“The next step,” McAuliffe said, “ought to be to get as far away from the charter revision as possible and back to the business of Bellows Falls. Let the charter be done by a future board of trustees so this one can get on with current business before them.”
Wright agreed: “I would say there would be no desire to revisit this for the foreseeable future,” she said, and encouraged those who opposed the charter to come to the table during any future revision discussions.
For Charter Revision Committee member Andrew Smith, perhaps the most disappointing part of the whole process was that only 12 percent of the village’s registered voters participated.
“The negative campaigning and the low voter participation was as discouraging as the ‘no’ vote,” he said. “In letters appearing in the press, I discussed the charter and encouraged questions. I received zero calls or emails on the issue. It was clear to me that nearly everyone had their minds made up weeks ahead of the vote.”
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