The Essex Jct. Board of Trustees and the Essex Selectboard will meet in the coming weeks to discuss the past, present and future of consolidation efforts between the town and village. They also plan to discuss a potential charter change, sparking hesitancy from members of both boards.
Joint municipal manager Pat Scheidel introduced the topic last week in reference to his upcoming retirement in summer 2018.
Scheidel, who was previously town manager before assuming the joint manager role in 2013, pointed to his own position as one of the shared services initiative’s basic fiscal benefits.
“It’s been the easiest thing to go from two to one and save money,” he said.
The manager position is shared via a memorandum of understanding, which states the village hires Scheidel for a three-year contract that ends in June 2018. The village reimburses the town for half of his salary, though he remains an employee of the town, from which he receives benefits.
The agreement can be terminated at any time by either board, however, and there’s no process agreed upon by which the two will choose a future manager once Scheidel retires.
So Scheidel suggested the two boards meet to discuss the possibility of codifying the role into the village and town charters.
A charter change would serve as a consolidation stop valve, he said, cementing the current make-up so it could only change by another voter-approved measure. It would also create a more stable environment for an incoming manager versus a memorandum of understanding, which Scheidel said is too big of a risk for the next manager to take.
Scheidel has suggested hiring a recruitment firm to conduct the search, a very intensive process that can take up to five months, he said. Though June 2018 may seem far away, timing will prove to be significant as the process unfolds.
If voters passed the proposed change to both charters, the Vermont House Government Operations Committee must then approve the measure. Vermont’s legislative session usually ends sometime in May.
Tyler suggested piggybacking on the school vote April 11, which would fulfill the House deadline and also address concerns of voter fatigue; town and village voters hit the polls four and five times last year, respectively.
Scheidel provided a draft schedule to the selectboard last week.
By law, municipalities must host two public hearings before putting charter changes to a vote. The first meeting must be warned at least 30 days in advance and must occur 30 days before the vote.
Scheidel suggested holding a special meeting January 23 to warn the first charter hearing for February 27 and the second for late March or early April.
The charter amendments must be filed with the town clerk 10 days before that day, putting the deadline at February 17. That gives the selectboard and trustees less than a month to agree on a uniform change proposed for both charters.
Reached Tuesday, Scheidel said a joint meeting date hasn’t been finalized.
Some trustees were concerned the limited window comes on the heels of the failed recreation district proposal.
“Do we have the time in the next two weeks to have that conversation, make that agreement, and not make it look to the public that we are trying to rush something after a very divisive situation we’ve just come out of?” trustee Lori Houghton asked.
Unlike the rec district, however, the charter changes wouldn’t propose anything that’s not already in place, Tyler said.
“Nothing gets changed that the community hasn’t been living with the past three years,” he said.
Tyler favored pursuing the measure, noting the significant time and fiscal investment for a search wouldn’t make sense without a commitment from both boards to recruit the same manager. He said while some village and town residents believe the boards should be addressing other issues, the shared manager role is “fundamental to everything else.”
Trustee Elaine Sopchak likes the concept of codifying the current structure, believing it sends a message that even though the boards are divided on some issues, there is progress. Still, she was concerned about rushing the discussion.
“I don’t feel confident about it anymore,” she said.
There was also some uncertainty among the selectboard.
Last Friday, selectwoman Sue Cook said she wanted more information about the proposal prior to a joint meeting.
Cook also wondered if the boards should discuss all the items that were pushed back due to the recreation saga, like firearms discharge ordinances or the suggestion to merge planning commissions.
“We should be prioritizing them before we just dive into another thing that will consume us,” she said.