Brattleboro makes a bid to shift power

Vermont League of Cities and Towns briefs Selectboard on efforts to win more local control

BRATTLEBORO — A coalition of towns is trying to shift some authority from the state level to the towns in the upcoming legislative session. Brattleboro and other interested towns, along with the nonprofit Vermont League of Cities and Towns, are spearheading the effort.

“It's going to be a really heavy lift in the House,” said Gwynn Zakov, the nonprofit League's municipal policy advocate, who updated the Brattleboro Selectboard on the effort to create a municipal self-governance pilot program at the board's Sept. 17 meeting.

At the town level, many see increasing municipalities' local authority as a no-brainer. At the legislative level, however, more local control represents a power shift that bucks more than a century of power concentrated in the State House.

Consequently, the effort may prove an uphill battle.

Vermont is a Dillon's Rule state, meaning the state determines the amount of authority a town can wield. Put another way, towns may exercise only those powers specifically detailed in statute.

According to Zakov and Town Manager Peter Elwell, the effort passed out of the State Senate last session as S.106, on an overwhelming 21 to 8 roll-call vote. State Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, championed the legislation.

Now, S.106 moves to the House Committee on Government Operations, where Zakov said she felt less certain of its success. She noted that the House Committee tends to pick through the details of legislation more than the Senate, and to deviate more often from the original legislation.

The town's three state representatives - Progressive/Democrat Mollie Burke, and Democrats Emilie Kornheiser and Tristan Toleno - all support the effort.

Already, S.106 has changed from its original incarnation.

According to Zakov, the original legislation created an independent commission to review the pilot program instead of the legislature.

But the Legislative Council, she continued, has said that such a bypass of the legislature is “impossible” under the Vermont Constitution.

In January, when the new Legislative session begins, the League plans to continue promoting S.106.

The organization will do its best to make S.106 “a better bill because right now we're not really happy with what it is,” Zakov said.

Zakov expressed disappointment at how the Senate Government Operations committee has already altered S.106 by adding multiple exemptions to what towns could control during the pilot program.

For example, the original proposal listed six areas of state law the towns couldn't change, such as state laws governing cannabis and firearms. The revised legislation now with the House added 12 more exemptions that include items such as state sign laws and state highways.

Zakov said she has heard from communities of all sizes that they need more tools to deal with the challenges of governing, adding that many communities spend a lot of time trying to fit within state law.

In Zakov's view, the state has an incentive to relinquish some of its traditional power.

The state deals with many big-picture issues, she said. If it ceded more authority to towns, the state would have more resources to tackle big statewide problems.

Selectboard Chair Brandie E. Starr suggested community members read the bill on the state legislature's website ( and look at restrictions.

“Right now we have to pull that power away [from the legislature],” she said. “It is two-and-a-half pages of things they don't want us to do” including “money making” and “municipality-shaping things.”

She urged the community to reach out to lawmakers about S.106.

Selectboard member Elizabeth Mcloughlin said its easy to view S.106 as the legislature versus towns. In reality, the bill represents government's finding more flexible ways to solve complex issues.

“It's a modernization effort and people should realize we need all the tools in our tool box to run a modern city,” she said.

Selectboard member David Schoales expressed deep frustration that S.106 didn't pass last session. According to Schoales, Brattleboro needs a greater ability to raise revenue or the town won't survive economically.

“It sounds like you're lowering our expectations” he said to Zakov.

Zakov noted that achieving more “municipal control over municipal issues” isn't a new idea. She added that her boss worked on a similar effort in the 1980s, for example.

The idea, however, has new momentum due to recent municipal frustrations about not having “power at the local level to help your community to” solve programs locally, Zakov said.

Elwell said the “movement” to increase municipalities' ability to self-govern has had “good strong support ... out of Brattleboro.”

Elwell implied that the changes to S.106 had watered down what the proposed pilot program could achieve.

The original proposal follows a model created by West Virginia, which started its pilot program with four towns. At the end of five years, the program's positive outcomes spurred the state to expand the program to more than 30 towns.

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns' proposal called for 10 pilot towns to operate with expanded self-governance for five years. This approach would give the program “a good full experiment” so the state could see the pilot's outcome, Elwell said. The current version takes a more limited approach.

Elwell also said Brattleboro would continue to lobby to make S.106 a bill that better serves municipal needs.

With the board's disappointment still palpable, Zakov tried to end the meeting on an upbeat note. She said Brattleboro is an example of a town that is “an incubator for change” - for example, the community's decision to ban plastic bags.

“We're not taking our foot off the accelerator pedal,” Zakov said. The League intends to make increased self-governance a central topic of the 2020 election cycle.

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