Monday February 7, 2011

BRATTLEBORO -- Town Representatives returned to Academy School on Saturday to complete a special meeting on Brattleboro’s proposed charter revisions.

A slightly smaller number of representatives attended the second portion of the town meeting, which was recessed on Jan. 22. In total, the special Representative Town Meeting took nearly 15 hours between the two dates.

While not as controversial as the initial meeting, the Feb. 5 session also included several hot-button topics. Representatives argued early in the morning for more than an hour about a proposal to amend the non-binding initiative process.

Members of the Charter Revision Commission said this article does not allow for any petitions to go before a Special General Town Meeting or a special Representative Town Meeting. While it may keep costs down, it does not allow for town-business articles to move to a vote in an expeditious manner.

Although the article was adopted by a vote of 57 to 26, it sparked much debate over what petitions should come before voters.

The Brattleboro article several years ago to impeach then-President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney was immediately brought up Saturday because that petition resulted in not only nationwide press coverage, but also extra financial and staff resources on an issue unrelated to the town itself.

Selectboard Chairman Richard DeGray said there is a cost related to those petitions, which he called "frivolous and emotional" issues that required more town spending to review hundreds of e-mails (as was the case with the Bush-Cheney petition) as well as additional safety on Election Day.


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As an amendment, DeGray pushed for higher standards on future articles that do not directly relate to Brattleboro, making extra hurdles for potential petitioners seeking to promote non-town issues.

"My feeling is if you truly want this language, then let’s raise the standard," he said. "When people are fearing for their safety, that’s a concern we all should have."

Opponents dismissed his criticism as fear-mongering and raising the standards to silence the public. Selectboard Vice-Chairwoman Dora Bouboulis said voters who feel strongly about an issue may bring it up as a petition instead of potentially disrupting town government during regularly scheduled meetings.

"To me, it’s undemocratic to think about making it more difficult for people," she said.

The DeGray amendment failed, as did others seeking to strike certain language in the charter regarding national and international issues.

The following article also stirred much dialogue -- lowering the required number of voter signatures from 20 percent to 10 percent in order to petition for inclusion in the warning of an article to adopt an ordinance.

Larry Bloch, of the Charter Revision Commission, said there have not been any binding initiatives brought forth since 1984, so although this is not an overused measure in the last 27 years, reducing the percentage would give voters a more reasonable path if they were so inclined to do so.

But Scott McCarty of District 3 said there was no reason to alter the current language. He said it makes sense that a binding petition warrants the interest of the voting public, and receiving support from 20 percent instead of 10 percent would show that.

District 1 Rep. Bob Bady favored the 10 percent change because the binding initiative would still have to come before town representatives, leaving a reasonable system of checks and balances.

The measure passed by a safe margin.

The following articles were also adopted:

-- Representatives overwhelmingly approved an article to increase the referendum filing requirement from 5 to 10 days while also increasing the number of signatures required from 250 voters to 5 percent of all voters (an estimated 460 citizens).

Bloch said five days is too short a requirement, but the commission also felt it necessary to raise the bar for signatures to the 5 percent of the voting public. An amendment to keep the number of signatures at 250 failed.

-- By a 43 to 34 margin, representatives adopted an article to require the Selectboard to annually report in writing on the progress made toward accomplishing the goals set forth in the Town Plan.

-- Brattleboro Town School Board members joined with fellow representatives in supporting an article to appoint new school directors themselves, rather than giving that authority to the Selectboard.

School Board Chairwoman Margaret Atkinson said they are a separate body from the Selectboard and they should have the ability to fill openings until the following election.

If there happens to be three or more openings on the school board, then a special election is scheduled to fill the vacancies.

-- Representatives also adopted multiple technical changes to most of the articles, including one offered by DeGray to have newly elected Selectboard members take office the Monday following Town Meeting Day.

Doing so, according to the board’s chairman, would give the present Selectboard the opportunity to defend its budget before the meeting instead of having new members come in without prior knowledge of the work.

Fellow Selectboard members Bouboulis and Jesse Corum also supported DeGray’s amendment.

In a later motion, DeGray proposed an amendment to the charter which would have school board members also begin the Monday after Town Meeting, which also passed.

Additionally, representatives approved an amendment on Article III, Section 4 of the charter to read "the voters of the town may petition for a referendum, by Australian ballot of all voters of the town, on the final vote on a warned article taken by Representative Town Meeting."

Voters also approved a technical change in a 36-32 vote to keep the time when a recall petition can be submitted against an individual to the current 12 months. The commission recommended increasing that number to 24 months.

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Only a few articles were defeated, including the proposal to authorize the town manager to appoint the town clerk.

Spoon Agave, a member of the revision commission and a District 3 representative, said the move would bring the office under the fold of the town manager to "clarify many of the murky issues of accountability."

However, numerous representatives disliked the article, saying it would remove some of their authority when it comes to ratifying town positions. District 2 Rep. Kurt Daims said it doesn’t seem right for an appointed position to have the power to appoint other town positions rather than elected representatives and the public.

The article failed by an estimated 5 to 1 margin. Current Town Clerk Annette Cappy did not comment on the decision during the meeting.

A similar article to authorize the manager to appoint the town treasurer also failed, but only by a 38 to 37 vote in which Moderator Timothy O’Connor broke the tie when he opposed the measure.

Voters also unanimously defeated an article to establish a Department of Assessment, which the commission said would be led by a professional assessor appointed by the town manager. The commission noted this move would clarify the responsibilities of the Listers as well.

District 2 Rep. Leo Barile objected to the measure and proposed an amendment to add town assessor, hired through a collaborative effort by the Listers, Selectboard and town manager. But DeGray said given the complexity of this measure, he requested representatives vote both the article and the amendment down so the Selectboard could have a new (and better reviewed) version during the March town meeting.

Charter Revision members agreed with DeGray and the amendment was soundly defeated as well.

Near the conclusion of Saturday’s meeting, Dr. Robert E. Tortolani, a District 2 representative, thanked the commission and the moderator for their hard work throughout the process. He also publicly thanked the three retiring Selectboard members, Corum, Martha O’Connor and Daryl Pillsbury.

The commission was established in November 2007 to work on revising the town’s charter. The Jan. 22 meeting was the first open representative session to discuss such revisions since 1996.

With the recommendations now accepted by the representatives, the adopted charter changes are forwarded to the Legislature for final approval later this spring.

Chris Garofolo can be reached at cgarofolo@reformer.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.