By George Tyler

Six years ago when the Essex Junction Trustees and Essex Selectboard started discussing how our two governments might share a single manager, a critic suggested we were trying to get everyone to “sing Kumbaya.”

I don’t know the words to Kumbaya nor what the song’s about, but I got the point: sharing a manager would require changing the Family Feud dynamics of local politics in Essex. To make it work, the legislative boards would need to stop seeing themselves as rival gangs and start acting as partners and collaborators in a single enterprise. The critic was suggesting that sooner or later the old Village-Town rivalry would emerge and things would unravel.

But that critic was wrong. Since then the Selectboard-Trustee collaborative effort has unified the positions of manager, finance director, and municipal clerk. By combining these administrative positions we eliminated much of the duplication of service that characterized our governments for decades (and saved over $2 million of taxpayer dollars in the process). We’ve pulled the Village and Town public works departments into a single budget with unified oversight. Our two recreation departments now coordinate their programs and have streamlined the sign-up process. We’ve aligned many internal administrative processes and procedures, simplified tax and water billing, and created a joint committee tasked with bringing the entire Town-Village community into stormwater compliance.

In the process of all this collaboration not once did the old ‘Village vs. Town’ rivalry raise its head. It’s true there have been disagreements and setbacks. For example, during the effort to consolidate the recreation departments back in 2014, the boards did not explain clearly enough how it would work or how it might affect taxes. But we’ve learned from those mistakes and we are looking ahead clear-eyed at our community’s biggest challenge: How to reconfigure Town and Village municipal governments into a single governance structure in a way that improves upon the old, doesn’t harm the municipal services that underpin our quality of life, and earns the approval of voters.

The online survey which many of you took over the last few weeks (690+ responses!) was the first step in a year-long program of engaging as many community members as possible. The goal is to listen to your concerns about local government and to explain how the present two-government model operates and how it might be reorganized to serve you better.

Unlike previous consolidation efforts, the Selectboard and Trustees chose to undertake this task at the board level rather than appoint an advisory committee of private citizens. Here’s why: State law says that the legislative bodies must approve the plan of merger before placing it in front of voters. It stands to reason that the legislative bodies – the Selectboard and Trustees – are more likely to approve a merger proposal that they have constructed–with plenty of public input–than a plan created by a small group of private citizens that are not accountable to voters. And that merger proposal will be vetted thoroughly by our residents once it is finalized.

Vermont statutes also say that a merger proposal must account for the redistribution of money, property, and other assets of both municipalities, and it must also explain how the new government will be organized and operate. These necessary elements of a merger comprise the work Selectboard members and Trustees do every day. In partnership with municipal staff, who are intimately acquainted with the daily business of our Town and Village, we are confident the merger plan that will be developed will address the many financial and organizational intricacies inherent in merger. Add to this the cadre of experts we have been relying upon throughout this process, and we have a large team with deep expertise working hard to produce the best merger proposal possible.

But the most important reason for the two elected boards leading the merger effort is the foundation of collaboration and trust we’ve established over the last six years. We’ve increased our meeting time to the point where the Selectboard and Trustees now meet jointly twice a month. We’ve achieved an unprecedented level of cooperation and understanding while not compromising our critical thinking skills. We’ve spent many, many hours deliberating over different aspects of shared services and merger. As a Village trustee I’ve come to believe that my colleagues on the Selectboard respect Village institutions and don’t wish to see them harmed. And I believe members of the Selectboard know that the Trustees appreciate the work of all Town departments and wouldn’t support any merger proposal that might compromise them. Mutual trust and mutual respect are the only way forward.

We hope the community will judge this consolidation effort on its own merits, and not by who is directing it. Most community members who pay attention to local government would be surprised by the extent to which the Selectboard and Trustees have grown beyond the old Village vs. Town rivalry. We don’t want to go back. We want to go forward, and we hope the rest of the community will follow us.

Keep up to date on the process by visiting GreaterEssex2020.org. For questions and comments feel free to contact Elaine Haney (ehaney@essex.org), Andrew Brown (abrown@essexjunction.org), or Evan Teich (eteich@essex.org).