The selectboard and trustees will create a subcommittee to explore further governance models in the latest step toward hashing out the details of a potential merger.
Officials hope taking on some of the work themselves will cut staff’s workload so the boards can focus on other pressing issues while still advancing the merger conversation.
They’ve offered several options for moving forward at recent joint meetings.
Village president George Tyler initially suggested a seven-member council could carry out the town and village charter while the boards worked toward a complete merger. But at the June 14 joint meeting, he said the village attorney estimated that would take a significant amount of legal work to find an answer of whether it’s even possible, and Tyler no longer felt it was a viable option.
Andy Watts suggested creating a union municipal district, which could temporarily keep the two charters in place.
Selectwoman Irene Wrenner offered a different proposal that’s been popular among recent meeting attendees. She said the selectboard could expand to include 10 members – five village residents and five outside-the-village residents – who could vote as a unit for town-wide issues and legislate their respective districts on topics that only impact one of the districts.
A handful of town-outside-the-village residents say they support Wrenner’s proposal because it ensures they have elected officials whose sole duty is to represent town-outside-the-village interests.
But underlying any proposal for the governing board is what to do with the town and village charters, since any elected body will use those to govern.
The boards have expressed interest in bringing in “experts” from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns or a government agency like the Vt. Secretary of State’s office. But before that, Tyler said, they must be clear in what they want.
“Do we think that we’re creating a new chartered community, and we’re going to move everything into that?” Tyler asked. “Or do we think we’re basically trying to figure out how to take all the stuff that’s in the village and move it into the town?”
Trustee Lori Houghton strongly favored the former and said she would no longer vote in favor of consolidating individual departments. Responding to a resident who asked for her rationale, she said previous merger attempts have created a lot of “ill will” across the town-village border.
“We need to be one community. If we get eaten up by the town, what does that mean?” she asked.
A handful of residents at the June 14 joint meeting agreed a new charter was the best option.
That question – one of identity – traces back to previous merger attempts and will again prove important as the boards continue their discussions.
At the June 14 meeting, the boards briefly discussed a timeline and whether they could put any charter changes onto the November ballot, which is expected to have higher turnout due to state and national elections.
But that would require ballot language to be secured several months in advance, leaving a shrinking window to hash out some of the major questions still unanswered.
The issue of representation again reared its head during the June 18 selectboard meeting.
Wrenner, who’s pushed for equal representation, said the board should promote two outside-the-village residents to balance out against the two village residents from the trustees. Two selectmen live in the village – Michael Plageman and Elaine Sopchak – leaving only three options, one of whom, Andy Watts, said he can’t fit the committee into his schedule.
Several board members questioned how one’s residence could influence the task of data gathering, including Plageman, who wanted to serve on the subcommittee.
“You guys can decide whether the fact that I live in the village is going to be a detriment to that or not,” he said. “I don’t think it is, or else I wouldn’t be standing up.”
But Wrenner said the board has repeatedly heard that town-outside-the-village residents don’t believe they are adequately represented because no officials have a sole purpose to keep their interests in mind.
“They would, I think, have a problem with us even asking questions on their behalf,” Wrenner said, “because we don’t see things the way they do.”
Selectboard chairman Max Levy disagreed but said he’d prefer to see the board move forward in a “cohesive matter” and offered to serve on the committee alongside Wrenner.
Watts said he was saddened to see the board resort to geography, but he and the rest of the board voted in favor of the nominations, with Sopchak drawing a lesson from the recreation debate.
“We know from experience that if we are not entirely satisfied with the process that the process will be attacked until it falls apart,” she said.
The boards next joint meeting is scheduled for July 18 to discuss the public works memorandum of understanding and unified manager goals. They then expect to hold another meeting in October to discuss governance, inviting consultants from the state and VLCT to attend.