Recently in this column we’ve talked about how there’s a Town Selectboard, and there’s also a Village Board of Trustees. This is because back in 1893 the Village was formed so that residents in that area could tax themselves for services they needed, like fire protection and sidewalks.
Vermont statute requires that these villages-within-towns (also known as incorporated villages) have their own governing bodies, so that their residents can control how the villages spend their taxes.
It’s important to remember that—here in Essex—even though our Village has its own governing body, Village residents are also residents of the Town. They have the right to vote on how Town government spends their tax dollars too. They also have the right to run for election to sit on the Town Selectboard.
The Town charter specifies that all members of the Selectboard are to be elected at-large. This means that there are no special voting districts or wards that put forth candidates. Anyone who is an adult resident of Essex, including Village residents, can run for a seat on the Selectboard.
Being an elected official is a tough job. It requires hours of reading, meetings, and community work—time that many people don’t have to spare. Evening meetings can take away from family life, and full-time jobs limit how much time people have to volunteer. As a result, it’s often very difficult to find people willing to run for office. It’s entirely random who decides to run in any given year. Since it’s so hard to find good volunteers to serve, like any volunteer committee, the Selectboard welcomes anyone willing to step forward, with no prejudice about where they live.
When someone is elected to the Town Selectboard, by law they represent all residents of both the Village and Town. Where a candidate lives in the Town is not relevant because they are elected by the entire population of the entire Town of Essex. The fact that some members of the Selectboard live in the more urban Village does not make them less capable of representing someone who lives in the suburban or rural areas of the Town. That is because all Selectboard decisions affect the entire Town.
The thought that Selectboard members living in the Village cannot represent people living in the suburban and rural parts of the Town is just like saying Vermont’s lone Congressman Peter Welch cannot represent Essex in Washington because he doesn’t live in Essex. Rep. Welch is required by law to represent all Vermonters, and Selectboard members are required by law to represent all Town of Essex residents. Saying certain Selectboard members are not serving the entire Town simply based on where they live is inaccurate, misleading, and polarizing. We Selectboard members work incredibly hard on behalf of all our residents. To say otherwise diminishes our service and the work we do on all Town residents’ behalf. And our record stands for itself—we do not favor any particular area of the Town when making decisions.
For a little historical perspective, take a look at the chart above. It shows the membership of the Selectboard over the last thirty years, from 1989-2019, and where those members lived. You’ll see that for 20 of the last 30 years, there have been only 1-2 Village residents serving on the Selectboard. And for 10 of the last 30 years, there have been zero Village residents serving on the Selectboard. Having three Village residents on the Selectboard currently is the first time this has happened in at least 30 years. (It’s interesting to note that at the time of the last merger vote (ca. 2006-7), there were zero Village residents on the Selectboard.) And in all that time, there has been no outcry regarding the Village’s historic underrepresentation. This is because we expect our elected Selectboard to represent the entire Town fairly. And all along, they have.
Going forward, as we discuss a potential new governance system for a merged community with one board, we will consider how we vote for our elected officials. One goal is to make voting easier by cutting back on the number of times we go to the polls. Another goal is to ensure appropriate representation. We will consider voting districts and what they might look like. We will discuss how residents can better participate in government, exploring ideas like neighborhood assemblies. And all discussion of voting will be based on facts.
So the next time you hear or read something about representation being unfair, consider the facts of this chart, and the fact that by law Selectboard members must represent the entire Town. Think about how the Selectboard makes decisions for the entire Town, and not just certain parts. And think about how, for the last thirty years, the Selectboard has done their job fairly and to the best of their ability. Please use the facts to help you make your own decisions.
Visit www.GreaterEssex2020.org for ongoing updates. We will make additions and improvements to this site over the next many months. Stay tuned for next week’s column, and as always, send your questions, thoughts, and concerns to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com or municipal manager Evan Teich at firstname.lastname@example.org.