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Brattleboro sued over failed vote to change charter

Plaintiffs say that Selectboard weighed in on citizen petition inappropriately

BRATTLEBORO—Two residents are suing the town for its handling of three proposed charter amendments.

Kurt Daims and Craig Newbert filed papers with Vermont Superior Court on March 16 against the town of Brattleboro.

In court documents obtained by The Commons, the two men allege that the Selectboard misused its authority and swayed the outcome of a March 3 town-wide vote on three charter amendments submitted by Daims and fellow supporters.

The plaintiffs’ complaint notes that the “Selectboard, unsupportive of the proposed amendments” used town resources — such as the town website, brattleboro.org, and other sources like newspapers and email, to circulate an “erroneous and partisan view of the amendments.”

In the plaintiffs’ opinion, this information had an impact on the outcome of the March 3 election, where voters overwhelmingly defeated the proposed amendments.

If approved, the amendments would have changed the Brattleboro Town Charter.

A town charter is a legal document, approved by the Legislature, that governs the management of the town. In some cases, it supersedes state law.

During public meetings, Daims noted that the three proposed amendments would restore rights to the people lost when the charter underwent a revision in 2012.

Supporters of the amendment felt that the revisions thwarted citizens’ free speech by making the procedure for submitting petitions for town-wide votes more difficult or not letting voters weigh in on town spending.

Court documents also state that in claiming the Selectboard had a duty to provide guidance on the amendments, the board compromised “the constitutional mandate that elections be free and without corruption and free and voluntary.” It interfered with the separation of powers outlined in the Brattleboro Town Charter.

According to the court documents, the plaintiffs contend that the March 3 ballot included “added commentary” about the amendments that equated to political material that interfered with the separation of powers outlined in the Town Charter.

Under Vermont law, no form of political materials like handouts, information sheets, buttons, or candidates are allowed within the polling place.

Plaintiffs are seeking four remedies from the court regarding the Selectboard and the results of theMarch 3 vote.

• Order the town to nullify the charter amendment vote and order a new election with a clean ballot free from influencing language.

• Enact a gag order on the town on providing information in future elections, either in favor of or against, ballot items submitted through a petition.

• Rule that the town stepped beyond its authority and violated citizens’ right to a fair election.

• Rule that the Selectboard’s information sheet was “partisan and erroneous.”

The documents also stress that this “misinformation” be corrected by a court ruling to note, in the plaintiffs’ opinions, that the current charter makes petitions by initiative more difficult than the previous charter.

Also, write the plaintiffs, the amendments would “restore petition rights consistent with the previous Charter.”

Finally, they write, the term limits proposed in the amendments “could not empty out the Representative Town Meeting or prevent a quorum.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #298 (Wednesday, March 25, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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