PUTNEY—Do voters here want a larger Selectboard?
To find out, a petition to include an article on the March 1 Annual Town Meeting warrant to increase the Selectboard from three to five members is being circulated and signed.
Vermont statute states a town may vote at an annual or special Town Meeting to elect two additional Selectboard members for terms of either one or two years each.
It goes on to say that if two additional Selectboard member positions are created, they shall be for terms of the same length, but if the terms of the new positions are to be for two years, when the additional Selectboard members are first elected, one shall be elected for one year and the other for two years.
The petition, drafted by attorney Fletcher Proctor, requests that voters approve two new members for two-year terms each.
To be considered for the warrant, Town Clerk Jon Johnson says a petition needs signers equaling 5 percent of the voter checklist. The current voter checklist is 1,994 names, so roughly 100 signatures are needed.
As the Putney 05346 zip code also covers parts of Westminster and Dummerston, Johnson warns that signatures from voters living in those towns would not be accepted.
Johnson, as town clerk, will need to verify all signatures, then present the petition to the Selectboard, which would then vote to add the article to the warrant.
Petitions are due Jan. 13, but signer and supporter Laura Chapman says the group plans to turn in the petition early so that it can be included in the town report and to “make it easier on town staff.”
Chapman says 114 signatures have been gathered to date, with one list still to be tallied. She plans to continue to collect signatures through Dec. 17 for anyone who wants to sign, which one can arrange to do by emailing her at email@example.com.
“People have been really enthusiastic,” Chapman says, calling the petition “truly a community effort.”
“We’ve had at least eight people collecting in their own neighborhoods, so there’s a broad spectrum of Putney represented,” she adds.
‘There is more room for dissent among five people’
The advantages, says Chapman, of a five-person Selectboard in Putney, where the 2020 census lists the population at 2,617, include that “many hands, or in this case, minds, make light work and increase the ability for members to more easily take on passion projects.”
“Having a truly diverse board with only three members is difficult,” says the former Selectboard member. “Five would improve that. I have heard many in Putney say they do not feel represented by our board, including during my time on it and before.”
In addition, she says, the town’s last election was contested and when she resigned, several people came forward to fill her seat, “which indicates we may be in a time where people want to serve again.”
“Individuals have said to me that if the terms were shorter, they would be willing to serve, but three years is too long a commitment,” says Chapman. “This allows for shorter terms.”
Additionally, says Chapman, “there is more room for dissent among five people.”
“Dissent is critical to healthy, democratic process,” she says.
Some critics have said that a five-member Selectboard is too large for a small town such as Putney which also has a town manager. Chapman responds that the town is in a unique position, serving “a much larger community than our fixed population, with four private schools, three of them with on-campus living.”
“We are one of the larger job creators in the area,” she says. “Putney holds space for many people that are not actual residents. Having — slightly — larger town level representation would hopefully serve all of our populations in a positive way.”
‘We already have a tremendous lack of volunteers’
Current Selectboard Chair Joshua Laughlin is not a fan of the five-member-board scenario. He says that the town has too many open seats on boards and committees as it is and that folks may not be aware of the “complications.”
“I think the idea of more voices in the room is great, [but] I think we struggle to fill even our committees that take a lesser commitment, much less have Selectboard members that want to run,” he says. “This year, we had our first contested race that I remember in my 16 years and more often than not we have to push people to run.”
“It’s a significant challenge to fill slots,” he continues. “Some people take the approach of ‘build it and they will come,’ that if we have five slots people will step up. I hope that happens.”
“To leave it to the sitting Selectboard members to appoint people because we have more slots and not people stepping up is unfortunate,” Laughlin says.
“For all practical purposes, the board is there to do the business of the town, not to be a political entity — and I worry,” he continues. “Certain people are envisioning this as a way to have more political voices at the table, and I’m concerned about that. We’re here to do the business of the town, not advance personal agendas or play politics.”
During a brief discussion about the petition at the Dec. 8 Selectboard meeting, Loughlin iterated his thoughts, saying “if people are signing that petition — I’m in favor of more people, more voices — but we already have a tremendous lack of volunteers on all our different committees, and if people are signing that petition, they should at the same time be thinking, ‘All right, who’s going to step up and do this?’”
“I think asking for a five person board is complicated on a number of different levels,” he said.
“Five people doesn’t necessarily mean better representation,” added Vice Chair David Babbitt. “It depends on who those people are [...] and does it really serve the town better?
Selectboard Clerk Aileen Chute is also serving on two other boards because she hasn’t been able to find anyone to fill those seats.
“To run for Selectboard last year, I had to make a decision not to run for re-election to the lister board, as they are incompatible positions, according to state statute,” she said.
No one ran to fill her soon-to-be-vacated Listers seat. The Selectboard was “finally able to appoint someone to that third seat this summer,” she said.
“In addition to being on the Selectboard, I am also still a member of the Planning Commission and the Energy Committee, because we can’t find people to serve on those boards,” Chute noted.
At the Dec. 8 discussion, she pointed out that if a five-person board is approved but two more people don’t step up, the current board would be duty-bound to find two candidates.
“We would constantly be trying to recruit people instead of doing the town’s business,” she said.
Earlier, when asked, she said she would prefer to see “more engagement from the citizens of Putney by stepping up to volunteer for the many vacant positions on the various committees and boards that we already have, and also see citizens stepping up to put their names on the ballot for the current elected positions, than try to expand the Selectboard.”
She echoed Loughlin’s sentiment, saying, “Historically, we’ve had difficulty trying to find people to serve in the elected and volunteer positions we currently have.”
Chute adds that although some towns about the size of Putney have a five-person Selectboard, they don’t have town managers. She notes Newfane, Townshend, and Guilford as having five-person boards but no town managers and admits, in those cases, that five people allow the board to “spread the work.”
At Annual Town Meeting in March, voters in Halifax approved expanding that town’s board to five members as well.
“I think a five-person board would run the risk of getting in its own way,” she says. “I believe that citizen involvement in local governance is the key to making the most positive differences in all of our lives and I encourage everyone in Putney to engage in your local government by putting your name on the ballot, volunteering your time, coming to board or committee meetings, and last, but definitely not least, exercising your right to vote.”
Currently, open seats for the March 1 election include a three-year term as Selectboard member (modest stipend), a one-year term as moderator (volunteer), a three-year term and a two-year term as lister (part-time, paid), and a three-year term as cemetery commissioner (volunteer).
Those interested in serving must submit a petition containing the signatures of 1 percent of the town’s registered voters, and a Consent of Candidates form must be filed with the town clerk by 5 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 24. Petitions and consent forms are available from the town clerk.