Ken Signorello believes that the proposal he and Irene Wrenner have put forth to divide representation on the Essex Town Selectboard between the village and the town outside the village (TOV) will capture the diversity of the town.
Essex residents live in everything from condos to log cabins on 100 acres, he told the Reporter. Because most board members are from the village and the developed area immediately outside it, those are the perspectives heard by the board. “They’re going to tend to talk to the people in their own ecosystem,” said Signorello.
Although, it should be noted, the board backed off of planned regulations for backyard shooting ranges last year after hearing from residents in the town’s rural areas.
Asked if a proposal to divide the town’s representation evenly between the village and TOV with three representatives each would address the issue of representation for the town’s more rural areas, Signorello said, “We’d love to do more. You need a redistricting commission.” Because the village boundaries already exist and the population between the two is roughly even, two districts is easier to implement and doesn’t create new voting districts. Creating additional, smaller districts would require that each district receive its own ballot for selectboard.
Wrenner pointed to the Essex Westford School District as a model. When the three existing districts merged, they created a board with three representatives each for the village and town, and two for Westford, each with a half vote. “Why can’t our selectboard do this?” she asked.
Wrenner added that she first raised the issue in 2005, when the village lacked any representation on the selectboard. “I have worked for 15 years to fix the representation problem.”
“The only way to build a bridge between the two is to have equal [representation],” said Signorello.
When the Reporter spoke with selectboard chair Elaine Haney, she quoted an Essex resident who called the proposal a solution in search of a problem.
Over the past several years, 95 percent of the board’s votes were unanimous. In a couple of dozen instances there were 4-1 votes, but most of those were over the minutes, with one member wanting changes, Haney said.
“There’s been disagreement from time to time on small things,” Haney said. But when it comes to the big issues the board tends to arrive at a consensus and vote unanimously.
“I understand the sentiment behind it, that we should all just get along,” said Haney, adding there is no evidence of votes splitting on town and village lines.
It’s only recently that the village has had more than one representative on the selectboard. For ten of the last 30 years, there were no selectboard members from the village, including in 2006 when the last merger attempt was made, noted Haney.
It’s also easier, in Signorello’s view, to run for the selectboard from densely populated areas. “It’s daunting to run as a selectboard member from here,” he said, pointing on a map to some of the town’s more remote areas. Canvassing one’s neighbors, for example, involves a lot more travel to reach the same number of people as are on a block in the village and its environs.
Haney, however, said where board members come from “depends on who wants to represent their town at any given time.” She added, “It has nothing to do with geography right now.”
While the board currently has three village members, “that’s the first time that’s happened,” said Haney.
One of the concerns Haney and others have raised is the possibility of a tie with an even number of board members.
Signorello said that is a risk now, when board members are absent or recuse themselves.
Haney acknowledged that can happen, but said she tends to table major issues when members are absent.
In a tie vote the proposed measure would fail. Signorello said that would allow for a compromise to be arrived at. But Haney said that on some items, such as the budget, the board is obligated to follow tight timelines that may not allow time to resolve issues. She offered the example of the TOV representatives deciding that the amount of plowing being done in the village was excessive and refusing to vote for the budget. “Three people can hold the community hostage until they get what they want,” she said.
A board with an even number of votes is so unusual that Haney reached out to experts to find out if it was even legally allowed. She said she has contacted the town’s attorney, the merger attorney, the Secretary of State’s office and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT).
Signorello and Wrenner requested Haney’s communications related to the proposal and received her emails with those entities as well as the town and village manager Evan Teich and village trustee George Tyler. Signorello and Wrenner shared those emails with the Reporter. The Reporter’s review did not show any communications which were inappropriate or untoward.
When presented with a petition, municipal boards do have an obligation to ensure those petitions are legal, as Wrenner did in this case.
Voters will weigh in on the issue on Town Meeting Day. Should the proposal, which changes the town’s charter, be approved, it will be sent to the legislature, which must approve all charter changes.
The House and Senate committees on government operations will receive the proposal. Whether or not they take it up is up to them. With the merger vote pending in November, the committee chairs could easily decide to table the charter change until 2021. Or they could approve the change. Should the merger be approved, that plan would ultimately supplant this one.
As for how their proposal would be implemented, Signorello said that if the legislature approves the change, the selectboard would fill the newly created seat by appointing a member from the TOV. As the terms of current members expire, those seats would become either village or TOV seats.
Addressing the criticism that their proposal doesn’t contain a mechanism for insuring that representation changes along with population, Signorello and Wrenner said that should the populations become unbalanced the selectboard would appoint a redistricting commission.