Selectboard to hold special meeting Jan. 29 to finalize Town Meeting agenda

Public hearing will address petitions to amend Town Charter

BRATTLEBORO — With town elections and Representative Town Meeting less than two months away, the Selectboard will soon approve the town meeting budget and hold the second of two public hearings on items appearing on the ballot in early March.

The special board meeting where board members will address those tasks will take place Thursday, Jan. 29, at 5:15 p.m. in the Selectboard Meeting Room, on the second floor of the Municipal Center.

As of the board's Jan. 20 meeting, the proposed fiscal year 2016 budget is $15,721,497.

Board Chairman David Gartenstein said that the budget increased 2 percent over the previous fiscal year.

The board started preparing the town budget last fall. If approved Jan. 29, the budget goes to Representative Town Meeting for final approval in March.

Enacting a 1-percent option sales tax is also up for discussion. Gartenstein said the board will decide whether to include enacting the tax on the townwide ballot, before Representative Town Meeting, place it before both, or drop it altogether.

Gartenstein said that, in his opinion, funds raised through the 1-percent sales tax are tied to the financing of the Police-Fire Facilities Upgrade Project.

Gartenstein reminded the audience that with the state requiring towns shift to a pay-as-you-throw trash pick up system, households in buildings with four or fewer units will incur a new expense this summer: purchasing town-approved bags for trash disposal.

He said he will keep repeating the change to purchasing of new trash bags whenever possible so no one is surprised come July.

Also on the agenda for Thursday: a public hearing regarding potential amendments to the Town Charter. Under state statute, petitions for altering the charter require two public hearings before going to a townwide Australian ballot vote.

At the Jan. 20 board meeting, Town Meeting Member Kurt Daims, who is spearheading the amendments, explained the three proposed articles.

If approved through a townwide vote, the amendments would next go to the Legislature for final approval.

Audience member and former Selectboard member Dora Bouboulis noted that the Legislature would vet the amendments and flag any issues with them.

The first proposed amendment would allow Brattleboro residents, aged 16 and 17 who have taken the state's Voter's Oath, to vote in town elections.

Daims cited studies saying that youth voting may increase overall voter participation.

People who start voting at a young age typically continue voting throughout their lifetimes, Daims said. Parents who haven't voted in some time will often start again if their kids show an interest.

Voter turnout in Brattleboro has remained at a steady low, Daims said: People are “not invigorated about the town government and participating in the town government.”

Lowering the voting age may help change this, he said.

As well, working teenagers pay taxes on their wages, added Daims. Not allowing them to vote, he said, amounts to taxation without representation.

Gartenstein said since the state constitution lists voting age as 18, the youth voting amendment may be prohibited by state law.

The second amendment was called the “Overspending Veto, Restoration of Free Speech.”

This amendment would change the Charter to allow a townwide vote on any decision made at Representative Town Meeting that authorized spending of more than $2 million. The proposed amendment also aims to increase the number of days to file a referendum petition from 10 to 30, and decrease the number of required signatures of registered voters from 5 percent - more than 300 - to 250.

The second proposed article also included changes to enacting a town ordinance. Language supplied by Daims includes halving the percentage of required signatures. Instead of placing the initiative on the next Representative Town Meeting agenda, the amendment also would require the initiative go on the agenda for the next regularly scheduled School Board or Selectboard meeting.

According to Daims, the former Charter allowed for more referendums and free speech. In the last round of Charter updates more than three years ago, Town Meeting Members got confused and made changes they didn't realize would have negative ramifications.

State law requires towns update their charters every 15 years. Brattleboro's Charter Committee started reviewing and suggesting changes to the document in 2008. The committee worked on the updates for three years before taking its updates to a special Representative Town Meeting that lasted two days.

Daims' third proposed Charter change, “Term Limits, Election Reform, and Free Speech,” encompasses imposing a six-year term limit for Town Meeting Members. In this vision, interested candidates can run for Town Meeting again after a three-year hiatus.

The third change also calls for moving town elections to the first Tuesday in November, would require employers to provide two hours of paid leave for voting, and would reinstate the position of town grand juror to enforce the minimum wage and act as a district attorney for the town.

Gartenstein said that while Daims' proposed Charter changes will appear on the townwide ballot, he had serious concerns with the details.

One concern Gartenstein raised was that although only three amendments will appear on the ballot, each amendment containes multiple changes. Voters will only be able to vote on the three amendments - not on their constituent changes.

Gartenstein said that he has asked town department heads and the town manager to study the articles and prepare informational memos before the Jan. 29 meeting.

While the amendments “are motivated by good sentiments,” Gartenstein said, he voices worries that they would damage the town government in the long run.

Town Meeting Member Kathryn Turnas III said she did not like the idea of voting on the Charter changes in three chunks.

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