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Wilmington votes to retain town manager form of government

WILMINGTON—Voters cast their ballots in favor of keeping the Town Manger form of government at the Nov. 2 election, 527 to 226.

Wilmington approved the town manager form of government, as defined by state statute, in 1967. By state law, towns must also vote to dissolve the town manager form of government.

In September, a group of citizens petitioned the Selectboard to do just that.

According to Mary Jane Finnegan, owner of the Wilmington Village Pub on South Main Street, a group of a dozen people concerned with the amount of power given to the unelected position circulated the petition in early 2010, in time for the March annual town meeting.

“The town manager position gives an unelected official much too much authority by statute,” said Finnigan.

The group, however, stopped gathering signatures because people wanted more information on alternatives to the town manager position.

When then-manager Bob Rusten resigned in September, the group picked up the petition once again, filing it with the town clerk on Sept. 27.

Finnigan said she never had an issue with Rusten as a person but felt he was legally allowed to stand between her and the Selectboard on an issue she had with another town department head.

‘Significant restructuring’

Town managers act like a professional arm of the Selectboard and have a legal responsibility to administer and manage the duties invested in the Selectboard under state statue.

Their broad set of responsibilities include serving as the head of town departments, taking on fiscal responsibilities and, if the town approves the duties as part of the job description, collector of taxes from delinquent taxpayers.

“It’s a pretty significant restructuring of local government,” said Jim Barlow, senior staff attorney with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

According to Barlow, the prime responsibility of the position is to free the Selectboard to focus on the bigger picture of town development and voters’ concerns by managing the day-to-day town operations.

The town held an informational meeting for residents curious about the pros and cons of the town manager form of government.

The Selectboard, at the suggestion of Chair Thomas P. Consolino, invited Barlow to explain the statute.

More than 30 people attended the Oct. 27 meeting.

“I have no opinion what way is better or best. We [VLCT] embrace and love all of you,” said Barlow. The audience laughed.

According to Barlow, Vermont adopted the town manager statue in 1917. He speculates the state crafted the law because as towns grew they needed a professional manager position to help Selectboards execute town business. 

“What you’re considering doing is very unique,” said Barlow who usually speaks to officials looking to adopt a town manager form of government, not dissolve it.

Windsor returned to the town manager form of government after it voted to remove the position.

An unusual direction

Some towns opt for town administrator positions, which Barlow described as “creatures of local decision.”

Unlike town managers, town administrators are not covered by statute, and towns do not require voter approval to hire such employees. The choice to hire an administrator, designing a job description and assigning duties lies solely with the Selectboard.

Barlow said VLCT colleagues could think of only one example — Brighton, in the Northeast Kingdom — of a town switching from a town manager to hiring a town administrator.

Dover also moved from a town manager to an administrator in the 1960s.

Wilmington’s population of 2,300 falls at the lower end of the spectrum of towns with town managers. But towns experiencing large seasonal shifts in population, like Killington (1,100), tend to have town managers regardless of size, said Barlow.

“For your population, you can have a lot going on,” said Barlow.

In Barlow’s view, the town manager form of government creates a system of accountability. A town manager holds office at the will of the Selectboard and can be removed by majority.

Members of the public expressed concern that the town manager could make policy-level decisions, taking the town in directions voters didn’t approve and couldn’t stop because the position is unelected.

“Policy-level decisions are left to the Selectboard,” Barlow said.

Barlow explained smart town managers wouldn’t use statute as leverage against their Selectboards’ directives, despite the ability to do so, thus putting their jobs at risk.

Barlow said a pro of having a town administrator role is the customized job description. But he described a con by likening the role to building a custom-built car — if it breaks down, where’s the mechanic and parts dealer? Town Managers, on the other hand, come with professional support networks.

Public comment after Barlow left reflected favor for maintaining the Town Manager form of government.

Those in favor felt the position gave town government stability as Selectboard members and state laws changed. Other residents also felt running a town had become more complicated than a five-member volunteer Selectboard should be expected to keep up with.  

Before the polls closed, Finnigan said, “Whatever happens, happens.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #74 (Wednesday, November 3, 2010).

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