The governance subcommittee will take more time to finalize its report detailing how the town and village could change the structure of their governments, and while some officials feel a slow-and-steady pace offers the best chance for success, others see no time to waste.
The trustees and selectboard last week discussed a draft of the subcommittee report and posed hypothetical questions to their recently-hired attorney, Dan Richardson, who is tasked with guiding the municipalities on their journey toward a governance change.
Over the last several months, Richardson has helped the subcommittee vet 10 different scenarios ranging from an entirely new charter and governing board to a full-out divorce, with several options involving some form of district or ward system that would give both village and town-outside-the-village dedicated representatives.
Elected officials often emphasize the large workload involved with creating a new government, and discussion last week suggested there’s still a long road ahead. The boards need to figure out how to narrow their options – whether on their own or by some form of public engagement – while also tackling issues like tax equity that many believe have stalled prior merger efforts.
That’s all before potential changes even make it on a ballot. Some in town, however, feel the boards are making the process harder than it should be.
“This is not Brexit, but you’re treating it like Brexit. It is not that complicated. We’ve gone through this stuff before in my lifetime,” said resident Bruce Post, a former selectman. “You’re going through contortions. What do you want to do?”
“What we’re trying to not do is fail,” village president George Tyler responded. “I was right there with you with the others. They failed. We’re trying to learn from past mistakes.”
To some, the past only underscores the need to move slowly. Pointing to several recent outreach campaigns on topics of lesser importance, trustee and selectwoman Elaine Sopchak suggested the boards seek a professional facilitator who could guide a process of such “magnitude.” And selectman Michael Plageman wondered if they should create some citizen committees, like those used in the search for a new manager.
Others hoped for a quicker timeline. Trustee Lori Houghton reiterated vows against agreeing to further department consolidations until the boards first address governance. Trustee Andrew Brown hoped the boards would consider a November 2020 vote, expecting a major turnout due to the presidential election.
With no drop-dead date for a public vote, any such deadline would be self-imposed, and the boards agreed to table the governance discussion until after budget season, meaning it will be at least several months until the topic regains airtime.
Meanwhile, the town and village relationship continues to grow intertwined.
Voters will likely see a budget proposal later this winter that effectively blesses a move from the town and village recreation departments to co-locate into the same building. While the departments would maintain separate budgets, the move mimics that found in previous consolidations under the shared services initiative, with an eye toward aligning practices across the municipalities.
At the heart of that initiative are memoranda of understanding, or legal agreements prescribed by state law. That’s why even without a hard deadline, Richardson, the merger attorney, cautioned the boards against maintaining the status quo indefinitely: If the law changes, he said, these agreements “could come to a crashing halt.”
“It can hobble along,” he said of the municipalities’ relationship. “But the bigger it grows, the more complicated – and unwieldy – it becomes.”