On February 18, 2020 the Town Selectboard voted against supporting the proposal to create an even-numbered board (Article 5 on the Town Meeting ballot). The vote was one member in favor (Andy Watts) and four not in favor. We voted this way because the majority of board members does not believe the proposed charter change is in the best interest of our Town or our residents. The Vermont Supreme Court has stated that a legislative body may take a position in regards to a proposed charter change and can disseminate information in good faith in opposition to a proposed charter amendment (Daims v. Town of Brattleboro, 2016 VT 55).
The board and staff conducted extensive research to determine the legality and feasibility of the proposed charter change. We consulted the following experts: three members of the Vermont Secretary of State’s office, legislative director of the Vermont League of Cities & Towns, two members of the Legislative Council of the Vermont Legislature, the Town attorney, and attorney Dan Richardson, whom the Town and Village have retained to consult on questions about municipal governance and merger.
We understand the concerns that prompted the petition, and we thoroughly respect the opinions of the 1,023 people who signed it. We agree that fair representation is the ultimate goal. However, our research has led us to the conclusion that implementing the proposed charter change reduces representation for all Essex residents; imposes permanent division on the membership of the board; has the potential for gridlock that could negatively impact the Town budget process; and in general fosters a division between areas of the Town that the Selectboard has actively been trying for years to eliminate. The research conducted and community-wide input gathered over the last two years is the basis of the transitional representation model in the draft merger plan, which we will vote on in November. Although well intended, the current petition proposal makes polarization permanent; surveys, listening sessions, and public feedback show that most people want less polarization.
Reduction of representation. Currently, all Town residents regardless of where they live are represented by five people. The petitioned proposal for a new board is for three representatives from the Village and three from the Town outside the Village (TOV). Assuming that only Village voters would elect the Village representatives and only TOV voters would elect the TOV representatives, that means all Town residents would lose two representatives. While the proposed charter change would require representation from specific areas, the overall result would be that each area of the Town would be represented by three rather than five people. The Selectboard does not believe reducing the number of representatives for any areas of the Town is beneficial to voters or to the Town’s interests.
Perpetuates a perception of division. A publicly stated reason for the proposed charter change is that there is ongoing contention on the Selectboard between members who reside in the Village and members who reside in the TOV. We find no evidence of this. We looked at the Selectboard’s voting record for the last five years. Over that time period there were nine different people serving. Five live in the Village and four live in the TOV. From 2015-2019 the Selectboard voted 882 times. 94.9% of those votes (837) were unanimous. 4.5% (40 votes) had one dissenting vote, and 0.6% had two dissenting votes (5 votes). These figures suggest that the overwhelming majority of the time the Selectboard was in complete agreement. In addition, the 2019 quantitative survey results show that even those in favor of a district- or ward-based system in a merged municipality caution that it could perpetuate a perception of division.
It has also been publicly stated that the Selectboard has a power imbalance, likened to a hockey game where one team is playing short. In looking at the last 30 years of Selectboard residency, for ten years there were zero Village residents on the Selectboard. In 20 of the last 30 years, there were one or two Village residents on the Selectboard while TOV residents continued to hold the majority. During that time, the Selectboard has consistently made decisions for the entire Town without indicating bias towards certain areas. Also during that time there have been no petitions submitted by residents seeking to redress a perceived representation issue. Based on this historical information, the Selectboard does not see any evidence of the problem the proposed charter change is supposed to solve.
Potential for gridlock. Under the proposed charter change, the Selectboard would need to decide how to act in the event of a tie. In Robert’s Rules of Order, when a tie happens, the motion dies until a tie breaking vote is held. With a board divided evenly between the Village and TOV, the potential for negatively affecting the Town budget preparation and approval process exists. For example, if during the budget preparation process there is disagreement along district lines over some aspect of the budget, and that disagreement is not resolved in a timely way, the budget process will be delayed. The budget process is dictated by a statutory timeline that ends with putting the final, approved budget on the Town Meeting ballot by a certain date. If a disagreeing board delays this process it has the potential to cause the Town to violate that timeline and throw off the Town Meeting process. While the intent of the proposed charter change is to force agreement, it can just as easily foster the development of factions that could have significantly negative results for the Town.
The Selectboard has been working in good faith with the Village Trustees for two years on a draft merger plan. Enormous amounts of thought, time, research, and public input have gone into this plan, and that work continues. The current draft plan proposes a transitional board with two representatives from the TOV, two representatives from the Village, and three at-large representatives. This transitional board would last for five years. In that time, a committee could be formed to spend more time (possibly a year or two) studying other districting models or at-large models that may not perpetuate the perception of division between the TOV and Village. We will vote on a merger plan in November 2020. A transitional board with a combination of district-based and at-large representatives is a balanced compromise based on resident surveys,listening sessions, and feedback that seeks to satisfy the wishes of most TOV and Village voters. The draft merger plan proposal offers a middle ground and seeks to address the perception of division that has held our community back for far too long. Article 5’s proposed charter change makes that division permanent. The majority of the Selectboard does not support Article 5 because we want to see our community move forward to a unified future.