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Charter Commission presents proposed changes

Town learns about democracy, and its unintended consequences

BRATTLEBORO—The Town Charter Commission presented 19 proposed recommendations in three categories entitled “increasing citizen participation in the governing of Brattleboro,” “greater accountability through transparent responsibility that is clear” and “housekeeping” in a public meeting on Sept 28 and 29.

A thorough and spirited discussion touched on numerous issues, but the theme of balancing open and engaged democracy against unintended consequences wreaking havoc on the town rose to the surface.

Although open to the public, Town Meeting Representatives and officials comprised the majority of audience members.

Selectboard Vice-Chair Dora Bouboulis, who felt the commission needed to do more soliciting of public input asked, “When are we going to have the public dialogue in which we ask what we want to see in our town government?”

The purpose of the meetings was to allow the audience to ask clarifying questions of the nine commission members and for the commission to gather information.

Kerry Secrest of Watershed Coaching, LLC,  facilitated the meeting.

A public forum will be held Oct. 7 at 6:30 p.m. in Suite 212, second floor of the Municipal Center where the public can ask questions or make suggestions to the commission on any aspect of the charter.

Why a charter?

A town charter acts as a municipality’s code of governance laying out the scope of powers for its town officials and the rights of its citizenry. Otherwise, Vermont statutes govern towns, except when they contradict a town’s charter. In this case, the charter trumps state statute.

“We are a deliberative body,” said commission member Spoon Agave.

Ensuring the power of the people and engaging the community, explained Agave, guided the commission’s decisions.

Agave said the changes represent three years of work and more than 70 meetings.

In most cases, he said, most of the changes resulted from a 9-0 or 8-1 majority vote, with an occasional 7-2 vote.

“We pretty much worked things through until we saw the strongest piece,” said Agave.

Brattleboro’s original charter from 1753 pre-dated Vermont and was part of the New Hampshire Charter. In 1853, Brattleboro established the first charter in the state. Its next overhaul came in 1927 and Brattleboro and West Brattleboro were merged into one town. 1959 saw the next revamp to include authorization for the Representative Town Meeting-form of governance, and received its most recent update in 1984.

Under Vermont statue, towns can choose to have a charter or not, but the state requires towns with charters to give them a spring cleaning every 15 years. Better access to state and federal funds is one benefit to having a town charter.

Making increases

The first two proposed changes, increasing the Selectboard from five to seven members and eliminating the one-year term, solicited numerous questions from the audience and Selectboard members in attendance.

According to commission member Larry Bloch, the commission’s reasoning was to distribute an increasing workload between more people, increase the diversity and participation of the board, enlarge institutional memory, even out board turnover and reduce the likelihood of single-issue candidates.

“We cannot legislate diversity. We can’t legislate participation. We can’t legislate what you want to implement,” Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray said.

In a memorandum to the commission, Town Manager Barbara Sondag highlighted the facts that competition for selectboard seats “has not been great in the past 10 years” and it “increases the line item for board salaries and expenses.”

Commissioner Harold Dompier, a former selectboard member, said not all the commissioners agreed with expanding the selectboard.

“There are some serious questions we need to answer regarding this particular question,” said Dompier.

“It’s [the charter] an experiment. Living democracy that is constantly changing. Nothing is cast into stone. We have the tools in the charter to change things back,” said Bloch.

Selectboard member Martha O’Connor asked why similar changes to the Selectboard were not also suggested for the School Board. The commission members said they would look into it.

Majority rules?

Another proposed charter change to garner numerous questions involved clarifying the procedure regarding potential conflicts of interest.

If approved, the charter would forbid board or committee members participating in discussions when a conflict of interest existed. The new procedure would have board members pointing out who had a conflict of interest and then voting on whether the member with the conflict would be allowed to participate in discussions.

DeGray said state statute understands that conflicts of interest “effects everyone equally.”

Sondag pointed out that the new procedure contradicts Robert’s Rules of Order.

Bouboulis said she didn’t think the change achieved what the commission hoped.

“[The vote] still allows for a majority. It still allows for the corruption to rule,” she said.

Commission member Richard Dudman said, “You just gave another argument for expanding the board – less possibility of a cabal to take control of the town.”

Commission member Orion Barber said by voting, the board or committees takes public the conflict of interest discussion, making it part of a public record and increasing transparency.

Powers of the People

A heated question and answer session broke out when the meeting reached the proposed changes for Chapter 3 of the charter, “Powers of the People.”

In his preamble to the questions and answer, Bloch said Chapter 3 represented a necessary part of government checks and balances reflected in the charter.

But, he said, recent court rulings had “trumped” the local charter’s authority and the commission sought to re-establish this power.

“It is the feeling of the commission that over the years there’s been a bit of an erosion of these powers [of the people],” he said adding the charter’s current language has been “cut off at the legs at the result of legal maneuvering.”

The new language, explained Bloch clarifies the pathways of advisory initiatives, binding initiatives and referendums from petition to vote. It also allows for referendums on any action taken during Representative Town Meeting.

The meaning of “any action” in the charter lead to the recent debate over the contested pay-as-you-throw referendum petition brought before the Selectboard by Moss Kahler.

Regarding advisory initiatives, Sondag wrote in her memorandum to the commission, “Allowing petitions on items that are not town business is a waste of Town resources both financial and human. The Bush-Cheney article several years ago resulted in staff spending many hours reviewing e-mails and correspondence from around the country. Due to safety concerns, extra staff was hired on election day.”

DeGray said he partially agreed with the changes but described the revisions as “usurping” the Selectboard’s authority and said he thought the 5 percent of voters’ signatures required to validate the petition should be raised.

He added that past petitions like the Bush-Cheney question were accompanied by bomb threats and that other petitions have made Brattleboro the butt of political jokes on TV.

“The citizens usurp the board? The board usurped the people’s authority,” said Bloch.

He added that the pathways set up in the charter only require the Selectboard to warn the article and the vote but the voters take action on the question.

Dudman said 500 Town Meeting Representatives versus five selectboard members was a far clearer expression of the town.

Town Meeting Representative Fric Spruyt said the Selectboard served at the pleasure of the voters.

“Of course democracy is messy. I think that’s part of the beauty of democracy,” Spruyt said.

Dompier said he took a different position to the rest of the commission and referenced a book about California politics called Democracy Derailed: Initiative Campaigns and the Power of Money.

“Unintended consequences can turn out to be a terrible scourge in the community. I think that’s a terrible thing,” he said.

Bloch said it seemed everyone was a little bit afraid of democracy’s messiness.

“We’re the people who have to figure it all out at the end of the day,” answered Sondag.

Town Meeting Representative Moss Kahler said, “I have full trust in the citizens and voters in this town that they’ll make a reasonable and intelligent decision [on petitions and votes].”

Other changes

The meetings also covered re-organizing the town clerk and town treasurer, usually autonomous departments, under the town manager and making them department heads. They discussed clarifications to the town manager’s job description and establishing a Department of Assessment in order to ensure the people who assess property values are not the same people hearing owners’ grievances.

On the second night, members discussed the commission’s changes to the charter’s preamble. The commissioners attempted to clarify the charter’s purpose and help citizens understand its importance by adding, “encouraging public service and charity among all its residents.” This addition met with many questions, namely “how do you legislate volunteerism?”

According to Bloch, the commission has taken steps to link the charter and Town Plan. By linking the “visionary” town plan to the “shall” charter, the commission hopes to raise the status of the town plan in the people’s consciousness.

“If the plan is more in the consciousness of the citizens perhaps more citizens will hold their elected officials feet to the fire,” said Bloch.

Also touched on, requiring write-in candidates to declare to the town clerk one hour before the close of polls to help insure accuracy of votes and decrease the workload on the poll workers.

To read the proposed changes in full visit www.brattleboro.org, and click on the the town charter box in the center of the home page. Another public meeting will be scheduled for early 2011.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #70 (Wednesday, October 6, 2010).

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