The selectboard and trustees will explore governance options in the event of a merger with the help of an outside lawyer, who may also guide them on how to enact a new charter if such a proposal ever takes form.
Daniel Richardson, a partner of the Montpelier-based Tarrant, Gillies & Richardson, will work with the recently formed subcommittee tasked with researching governance models that could help the town and village become a single municipality – a goal both trustees and selectboard members supported earlier this year.
“A lot of the time we think we might be asking a lot of questions, but we might not be asking the important questions,” village president George Tyler said at the Oct. 11 joint meeting.
The subcommittee – comprised of two trustees and two selectboard members – was supposed to share a report with its findings last week but pushed back its timeline after struggling to obtain the necessary information.
Richardson should be able to help that process. He said vast experience in municipal law has taught him some best practices for pushing charter changes through the legislature and noted a “wide array” of options to choose from – anything from a total or partial merger to a model in which the village becomes a special district within the town.
“We don’t change town governments overnight,” Richardson said. “You kind of have to get it right from the start. Otherwise it won’t function well, the citizens won’t support it and it won’t achieve what you’re hoping to, which is some greater efficiency and effectiveness.”
Richardson’s firm charges a municipal hourly rate of $150. Municipal manager Evan Teich will oversee any day-to-day contact. Teich said while there’s no cap, he plans to keep an eye on the expenses, which will be covered by each community’s budget line item for attorney services, and said he will advocate to budget for any anticipated expenses for the lawyer’s service in the next fiscal year.
If the boards continue past the study phase, Richardson could also aid in drafting language for a new charter, answer questions during public hearings and help officials prepare for the legislative process. He said he will play an analysis-driven role by giving options to the two boards without taking sides. Officials could then seek advice from their own legal counsels for any specific questions, he said.
A new charter would need approval from both boards and voters before it heads down to Montpelier, where the House and Senate Government Operations committees would scrutinize the proposal.
Richardson said experience shows those committees are “fairly conservative” and don’t like approving untested models or those with pushback from the community, so the best way to earn approval is to ensure residents widely support the plan.
Key to securing that buy-in is explaining how the proposal will directly impact residents, he said. One key concern here will likely be how the existing communities will be represented in a single municipality; town-outside-the-village residents have frequently voiced complaints that they lack representatives whose sole charge is to represent their interests.
Richardson couldn’t think of many times when public outreach has drastically changed a proposal. He said it has helped make tweaks in some cases, but mostly the process is useful in explaining the proposal, “so that people know the world isn’t ending.”