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Do Brattleboro voters want a mayor?

Co-sponsors discuss ballot question that will ask voters whether the town should change structure from 60-year tradition of Selectboard and Representative Town Meeting

To watch the program, visit brattleborotv.org/bctv-open-studio/mayoral-governance-brattleboro. Polls will be open at the American Legion, 32 Linden St., from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 3.

BRATTLEBORO—Along with casting ballots for local Selectboard candidates and the presidential primary on Tuesday, March 3, voters will also consider a non-binding question: Should the town have a mayor?

Two co-sponsors of a non-binding ballot question gathered with press last week to discuss the topic in a conversation that will be broadcast on Brattleboro Community Television as an episode of BCTV Open Studio.

Former Selectboard member Dick DeGray and Brattleboro Savings & Loan President/CEO Dan Yates, who have spearheaded the measure, explained their advocacy for the measure with journalists from the Brattleboro Reformer, The Commons, and VTDigger.

DeGray, who organized the forum, said that the ballot question — “Shall the voters of The Town of Brattleboro advise the Selectboard to amend the Brattleboro Town Charter to replace the Selectboard with that of a mayoral form of governance?” — will determine if the community has any interest in even a conversation about establishing a new governance system.

Details of the governance structure would be hammered out only if the ballot question passes.

After the taping, Yates addressed an issue of paying a third party to collect signatures for the petition that put the question on the ballot.

He said some people commenting publicly had raised concerns about how the sponsors gathered signatures.

Yates confirmed that the petitioners paid someone who was in between jobs $15 per hour to table on their behalf at places such as the Brattleboro Food Co-op. That individual was not given any additional incentives, nor was compensation based on the number of signatures collected, he said.

Revisiting the charter

Yates and DeGray said that for several years, they’ve heard from community members raising the question of whether the town should consider moving to the mayoral form of governance.

The town’s current system includes a five-member elected Selectboard, which hires and supervises the town manager as the top municipal administrative executive.

Town spending decisions are determined by the Representative Town Meeting (RTM), whose members are elected to represent the town’s three districts. Brattleboro, the only town in the state with this form of government, has operated with this structure for approximately 60 years.

Most of the Town Meeting members’ work happens at the Annual Representative Town Meeting in March; however, members also serve on committees and gather for special meetings during the year if necessary.

The conversation around instituting a mayor has happened in Brattleboro before. As part of its efforts to update the Town Charter between 2007 and 2010, the Town Charter Review Committee also considered the town’s governance structure — and eventually recommended against change.

Yates said that he and DeGray, along with “several others” the men did not name, decided to gather enough signatures to get the question on this year’s ballot.

According to DeGray, the question has never been considered as part of a larger, formal conversation, such as a town-wide vote or a discussion by Town Meeting members during the ARTM.

Referring to the Charter Committee’s 2007 work, DeGray noted that the committee — not the voters — made the decision not to move forward with a mayoral form of governance.

“Because this is such a cumbersome process, I want to know [whether] the people want us to explore this, and the best way to do this is through a town-wide vote,” he said.

If voters reject the measure, then a lot of time and energy will be saved, said DeGray, who stressed that the ballot question isn’t about establishing his preferred form of government.

Nor is it about vying for the job. Both men said they would not want to run for mayor, should their idea come to pass.

And, they pointed out, even if voters do approve the ballot measure, actually establishing a mayoral governance structure would only indicate the electorate’s opinion to the Selectboard.

If the Selectboard addresses the issue, it could take two years to change the process, which would include establishing a committee to revise the Town Charter, public hearings, and a final town-wide vote — this one binding.

The Legislature would then need to approve the revisions to the Charter, a power that derives from the Vermont constitution.

The vision thing

DeGray, who has favored a mayoral system for many years, said, “I also look at [the mayoral government] as accountability to the voters.”

In his opinion, the Selectboard can turn over by three people every year. In comparison, DeGray envisions a mayor having a three-year term and holding the overall vision for Brattleboro.

“Right now the town doesn’t really have a vision,” DeGray said. “It has goals that the Selectboard sets up yearly.”

But, since sitting boards aren’t compelled to complete a previous board’s goals, the town is limited in what it can accomplish from year to year, DeGray said.

“Again, accountability to the voters — I want to pick who is leading my community,” he added.

DeGray avoided the question about what part of the existing system people do not like or consider broken.

“Everybody has their opinion,” he said. “The reality is some people just don’t like the system.”

More precise representation?

Yates said he’s heard voters complain that a five-member Selectboard doesn’t provide adequate representation for all of Brattleboro’s residents and their needs.

“If you were to have representation from the town council that provided equitable representation from every district of the town, I think more people would feel comfortable,” he said.

While it’s not happened as far as Yates knows, nothing would prohibit all five members under the current Selectboard system from living on the same block.

“So by districting your membership, then you’re ensuring at least to a great degree that you’re representing the interests of all the voters,” Yates said.

Yates envisions instituting a “strong” mayor supported by a town council, one who would “have the authority to run the town like a CEO has the authority to run a company.”

Such a council would have more members than the current Selectboard — for example, three members from each of the town’s three districts, he said.

Putting power into the hands of an executive

Under a mayoral system, Representative Town Meeting would go away, DeGray said, hinting that the end of Representative Town Meeting might not be a bad thing.

According to DeGray, in recent years, RTM has had a hard time filling all its seats through direct voting. So, to fill seats, “people are going out and recruiting people to come in, and they’re getting to be Town Meeting members via caucus.”

“I don’t believe that’s the best way to have governance and representation at Town Meeting,” he said.

Becoming a Town Meeting member via caucus means that current members appoint that person to a seat rather than voters casting a ballot in favor of that candidate.

Yates agreed that under a town council and mayoral government, Representative Town Meeting would become “superfluous.”

But voters could still have voice in the form of a public forum, similar to the public participation at current Selectboard meetings, he said — “therefore ensuring the voters have an opportunity to come and speak.”

Recent letters to the editor to the Reformer and The Commons, as well as the online news outlet, iBrattleboro.com, have raised concerns that a mayoral form of governance would concentrate too much power in one person.

DeGray responded that he has heard similar worries that a mayoral system would reduce the amount of transparency.

But, he added, the present system already contains advocacy — for example, when constituents talk to board members or town staff about their specific causes.

A mayoral system could give people more opportunities to vote out leaders whom voters believe are not properly representing them.

“If people feel that’s happening, at the end of the day, the townspeople can vote out a mayor,” DeGray said. “Voters will decide if the mayor is using his power appropriately or inappropriately.”

Yates added that he has compared other charters from cities, such as Rutland and Burlington, that have mayoral systems. Both mayors have veto power, and both city councils have power to override such vetos.

In his mind, this means a mayoral system can offer checks and balances to ensure that one person doesn’t hold too much power.

Both DeGray and Yates said they would not want to run for mayor should that option emerge from this process.

Even if the ballot measure passes, actually establishing a mayoral governance structure would not be a done deal and could take two years.

The process would include the sitting Selectboard taking up the issue, deciding to move forward with it, and establishing a committee to revise the Town Charter.

The Legislature would then need to approve the revisions to the Charter, a power that derives from the Vermont constitution.

DeGray said that he would welcome the conversation as to whether the town should have both a mayor and a town administrator. He wasn’t sure about the cost of funding such positions, and he wasn’t sure what benefits — such as additional federal funding — that the town might receive if it officially becomes a city with a mayoral system.

“I don’t want money to be a determining factor,” he said.

Yates said he doesn’t favor adding another layer to town government. He said that the mayor would run the town, assuming the ability to hire and fire department heads — essentially replacing the town manager.

“I want to make sure something is perfectly clear here,” DeGray added. “I served a year under Peter Elwell as [town] manager and I’ve actually talked to him personally about this and wanted to make sure that this is not directed at him.”

DeGray added, “This is just about another form of government and more accountability in my eyes.”

If the ballot question passes, DeGray said he hopes to participate on any committee charged with building the final governance structure.

And if that comes to pass, other issues of town governance could be addressed. In his opinion, other pieces of the town charter require updating.

“One of the things you need to know is that once you open the charter for review, everything is open on the table for review,” he said.

Democracy in action

Yates said he would also welcome the opportunity to participate in the governance-structure-building process.

Compared to the town’s current form of governance, Yates said, a mayoral government will increase participation in democracy.

“Because we are putting the question to almost 9,000 registered voters in the town of Brattleboro, we’re not leaving the question to a small group of people,” Yates said, also noting that citizens would be able to continue participating “on an ongoing basis through the election of mayor and town council.”

DeGray said since the presidential primary is also on March 3, he hopes for a higher-than-usual turnout.

In the meantime, “You, the voter, need to do some homework on your own” about how the town operates now, DeGray added.

Yates said he respects the options of those who don’t favor a change. Likewise, DeGray said his advocacy of the issue isn’t personal and hopes opponents won’t make it such.

“We want to find out if there’s support for it — and, if there’s support for it, then you move on down the road,” DeGray said. “If we lose, I’m okay with what we have, but I would prefer to have a mayor.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #548 (Wednesday, February 12, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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