[The Village of Essex Junction is an incorporated municipality within the Town of Essex. The governments of the two municipalities, the Town and the Village, have been consolidating services and departments since 2013, and are now exploring the concept of a complete merger.]
On December 19th a petition was submitted by Irene Wrenner and Ken Signorello to the Town Clerk. The petition calls for a vote at Town Meeting 2020 to change the Selectboard makeup and how Selectboard members are elected. Here is the language of the petition:
We the undersigned legal voters of the Town of Essex, hereby petition the Selectboard of the Town of Essex, Vermont to place the following Article on the warning for the Annual Town Meeting to be held on the 3rd day of March, 2020. We certify that we are presently voters of that town. The Article to be placed on the warning to read:
Article: Shall the Town of Essex amend the town charter to expand the Selectboard from 5 at-large members to 6 members — 3 of whom would be elected from inside-the-Village and 3 of whom would be elected from outside-the-Village?
If approved, the Charter language would change as follows in boldface:
CHAPTER 2. OFFICERS Section 202. — Number, Terms of Office, Election
(a) There shall be a board of selectmen consisting of six members.
(d) All selectmen shall be elected as follows: three from inside the Village of Essex Junction; three from outside the Village.
Vermont statute (17 VSA § 2645) requires that a petition must be signed by at least 5% of registered voters. The petition was signed by 1,083 people. The Town Clerk checked every signature and concluded that 1,023 signatures were valid. There are 16,345 registered voters in the Town and so the number of valid petition signatures met the required threshold. Of the valid signatures, 954 signers live in the Town outside the Village, and 69 live in the Village.
Vermont statute requires two public hearings before a charter change proposal is voted on. The two public hearings will be held on January 27th and February 3rd at Essex High School, both at 7 p.m.
Vermont statute also requires that charter change proposals must be voted on via Australian ballot. This means that it can be discussed at Town Meeting on the evening of Monday, March 2nd, but it will be voted on at the polls during the day of Tuesday, March 3rd.
If the proposed charter changes are approved by vote on March 3rd, then they must be sent to the Vermont Secretary of State, Attorney General, and Legislature for approval.
Here are answers to some questions residents may have about the Selectboard and how we elect its members:
Is this proposal part of the merger plan the Selectboard and Trustees are working on?
No. This proposal was made by two residents of the Town outside the Village and those who signed their petition. The Selectboard and Trustees are currently working together to propose a representation plan as part of a potential merger.
How is the Selectboard currently comprised and how do we vote for them?
The Selectboard is made up of 5 Town residents, including residents who live in the Village. They are elected at-large, which means there are no requirements about where they must live within the Town to be eligible to be on the Selectboard.
How many Selectboard members are from the Village and the Town outside the Village right now? Has this happened before?
Currently there are 3 Village residents on the Selectboard: Annie Cooper, Elaine Haney, and Pat Murray. Max Levy and Andy Watts live in the Town outside the Village. Based on 30 years of records, 2019 is the first time there has ever been as many as three Village residents on the Selectboard. In the past 3 decades, there have been 10 years when no Village residents were on the Selectboard, and 20 years when there have been 1-2 Village residents on the Selectboard.
Will this affect the Essex Junction Board of Trustees?
No. Only Village residents can serve on the Village Board of Trustees. If the petitioned charter change is approved, future joint meetings of the Selectboard and Trustees would always be comprised of eight Village residents and three Town outside the Village residents.
Are Village residents not supposed to serve on the Selectboard?
Village residents are also Town residents. They are equally eligible to serve on the Selectboard.
Does this mean that current Selectboard members who live in the Village don’t represent other parts of the Town?
No. Having at-large elections means that those elected must represent all voters of the entire Town. In addition, all Selectboard members must take an oath to represent all residents of the Town.
Don’t you need an odd number of people to serve on a board in case of a tie?
Having an odd number of board members is common and recommended. If the petitioned charter changes are approved by voters, the Selectboard would have to devise plans for what to do in the event of a tie.
Do any other municipalities in Vermont have even-numbered boards?
After consulting with the Secretary of State’s office and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, it does not appear that there are any Vermont municipalities that have even-numbered boards.
What happens if no one from the Village runs for a Village seat on the Selectboard or no one from the Town outside the Village runs for a seat?
The Selectboard would need to devise plans to address this possibility.
How would merger work if the petitioned proposal passes?
The question of merger is independent from the petitioned proposal. The Selectboard and Trustees will continue to work on the many aspects of consolidation that will make up the merger plan to be voted on in November 2020.