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Jamaica working on its first town charter

JAMAICA—As a sign of the increasing complexities of running a municipal government, Jamaica wants to appoint three of its town officers which had previously been elected.

According to Selectboard Chair Alexandra Clark, Jamaica wants to hire its Town Clerk, Town Treasurer, and Delinquent Tax Collector — three positions that, under state statute, voters normally elect.

But they’re positions that require some specialized knowledge, and when candidates are nominated, they “don’t have to know a debit from a credit,” said Town Clerk Bonnie West.

West and Clark said candidates can be elected without having the ability to carry out the duties of their offices, while appointed employees must go through a vetting process.

To officially change the offices from elected to appointed, the town had to write its first town charter, which voters approved in November.

Town charters, in essence, allow municipalities to tweak their governments. State law governs a town unless it has a charter. The legislature reviews and approves each town charter.

“It’s been quite a challenging process and a very interesting one for the whole Selectboard,” said Clark.

The charter has been a year in the making. The Selectboard appointed a Town Charter Review Committee last spring. Public hearings took place throughout the fall, and voters approved the charter in November 2010.

Of the 382 ballots cast, 214 Jamaicians voted “yea.”

According to Clark, except for the three appointments, Jamaica will follow state statute on all other issues.

West, who has held all three posts, suggested the Selectboard consider the change.

“It’s really gotten to be more than what one person can do,” said Clark.

West said she suggested the change based on an increased workload and an assessment by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT), which recommended that  the town consider more checks and balances by splitting the treasurer’s duties from those of the town clerk and delinquent tax collector. VLCT also suggested hiring a bookkeeper to manage payroll and accounts payable.

A tougher job

West will retire later this year after holding down the municipal fort since 1976.

She said that running a municipality has become exponentially more complicated and computerized. Town budgets get bigger every year, and she feels the legislature hasn’t made running a municipality any easier.

“Act 60. I think that’s what really did me in,” joked West.

Candidates also need a higher level of skills. It’s not enough anymore for candidates, traditionally nominated from the floor at town meeting, to have only the desire to do the jobs.

Clark added that nominations from the floor also put some people on the spot creating uncomfortable situations. “It’s humiliating to get turned down,” she said.

Jamaica has lucked out by having West as treasurer, Clark said, and added that West is “honest as the day is long.”

But not all towns have been so lucky.  Clark said she knows of nine other towns that have already taken the appointment route.

Joel Beckwith, a charter committee member, said an appointment process gives the town more opportunity to know the potential appointee and for the appointee to fully understand the position.

Beckwith, who also served on the Jamaica Selectboard for 10 years, said a legislative body like the Selectboard could, as a group, afford to balance out its strengths and weaknesses. But, he said, a town clerk needs the ability to do the job at the get-go.

The charter review committee approached the question of appointing the town clerk, treasurer, and delinquent tax collector with an open and neutral mind, said Nelson Coleman, a lawyer and former Selectboard member.

“We’ve been lucky to have Bonnie [West] all these years,” said Bob O’Brien, one of the charter committee members.

O’Brien and Nelson said some of the residents who spoke against the charter at the public hearings were concerned the change will give the Selectboard too much control.

However, O’Brien said that most people changed their minds after they learned the Selectboard wouldn’t be the only board hiring and firing.

A committee of four, including residents, would screen prospective candidates making their recommendations to the Selectboard for final approval.

State Rep. Oliver Olsen (R-Jamaica) has filed legislation to approve the charter, which was approved by the House of Representatives on Jan. 25 and went to the Senate Committee on Government Operations on Jan. 28.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #86 (Wednesday, February 2, 2011).

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