Last week the Selectboard held the first of two hearings on the proposed charter change that will be on the ballot on Town Meeting Day, March 3rd. The change, proposed by residents in a petition, is adding a sixth person to the Town Selectboard and to have three board members elected from the Town outside the Village (TOV) and three elected from the Village. Many residents attended and expressed both support and opposition to the proposed change. The Selectboard also expressed reservations about the proposed charter change that arose after research, consultation with experts, and resident feedback.

At the hearing, many made statements that applied more to the proposed November merger vote than to the March vote. The only thing being voted on in March is the proposed change of the Selectboard from five members to six. The March vote is NOT about merger.

A second public hearing on the proposed charter change will have happened by the time this column is printed. At its Feb. 18 meeting, the Selectboard will consider whether to take a position on the proposed charter change. (The Vermont Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that it is legal for a Selectboard to take a position on a proposed charter change and to provide information regarding that position.)

Upon receiving the petition for the charter change, we immediately began the process of getting it on the ballot and researching how to implement what was requested. We did this research because a number of concerns about the proposed charter change arose among Selectboard members, staff, and residents. We consulted with two attorneys, staff of the Secretary of State’s office, staff of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and legal staff of the Legislative Council of the Vermont Legislature. Below are some of the concerns about the petition:

Confusion over who votes for who. Residents have asked whether only Village voters would elect the Village representatives and only TOV voters would elect the TOV representatives, or if the proposal means all voters would elect all six representatives.

Possible over/under representation. Currently, all Town residents regardless of where they live are represented by five people. The proposal is for three representatives from the Village and three from the TOV. If only Village voters elect the Village representatives and only TOV voters elect the TOV representatives, then that means all Town voters would lose two representatives.

Conversely, if this proposal passed and if the proposed merger vote in November failed, then when the Trustees and Selectboard meet jointly there would be only three TOV representatives but eight Village representatives making decisions for the entire Town.

Even numbered board. Vermont statute requires a minimum of three selectboard members and allows up to two more. Additional members can be added via charter change. None of the experts we’ve consulted and none of the research we’ve done have found any Vermont municipalities with an even numbered board.

The Essex Westford School District board has an even number of members. However, the two Westford representatives each have only half a vote. So even when the full board votes, there are only 9 votes counted.

How to break a tie. We cannot find precedent in Vermont law or in Roberts Rules of Order for an even numbered board and what process to follow in the event of a tie. Potentially, if a motion cannot be decided because of a tie, then the motion would die. This would mean, if factions developed among board members, that no decisions could be made.

If the intention behind an even numbered board is to encourage board members to work together to avoid a tie, it could also happen that an even numbered board divided by geography could foster deeper division and allow factions to more easily be formed.

Legality of districts. The proposal calls for representatives from the TOV and the Village. The Village is a statutorily established district. The Town of Essex as a whole is a statutorily established district. However, the area of the Town we refer to as the TOV is not a statutorily established district. The proposal doesn’t offer any information for how this district is to be established.

Transition to new board. The proposal doesn’t offer any timeline or mechanism for converting the current board to the proposed board. This means the Selectboard could decide to maintain its current makeup and add a 6th member at some future, undetermined date.

Legislative approval required. Vermont towns must have all their charter changes approved by the Legislature. It’s uncertain they would approve this proposal because there are so many unanswered questions, and because what is proposed has no precedent.

There is concern the Legislature wouldn’t approve a governance plan that:

  • Elects representatives from a non-statutorily established district.
  • Reduces voter representation.
  • Doesn’t include implementation steps or a timeline.

General awareness of the details. This proposed charter change seems pretty simple, but the Selectboard has discovered--after extensive research--that it’s actually not that simple. There is concern that voters who signed the petition were not aware of the intricacies of this proposal.

On the day after the first public hearing, I was presented with a public records request demanding a list of all the people I have heard from with concerns about the petition and the contents of those communications. I produced a small number of emails between myself and multiple experts, elected officials, staff, and residents. These emails do not include the numerous in-person conversations I and all board members have had with residents who shared their concerns and questions with us. Additional concerns will have most likely been raised at the second public hearing. They represent the due diligence the Selectboard must perform when exploring such an impactful change. It is our responsibility to ask questions and consider all potential consequences of any proposal that comes to us. If we did not ask these questions and express these concerns, we would not be fulfilling our duty to protect what the board believes is in the best interest of the Town of Essex. We will continue asking questions.

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