Balint: Revising the social contract — Vermont town charters

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As the legislative session winds down, marijuana, the budget, taxes, and schools headline the news. Many bills get lost in the clamor. They are critical to the way villages, cities, and towns in Vermont function, and yet elicit little fanfare.

One morning last week we reviewed and approved seven different charter change bills in the Senate. A veritable smorgasbord of issues, they provided windows into both Vermont's past and its future. Vermont towns play a significant role in local governance, and the Town Charter articulates each town's fundamental structure and individuality. Brattleboro, for example, is the only town with a representative town meeting. Created by beloved State Senator Robert Gannett in 1959, voters elect representatives from the three legislative districts to deliberate on Town Meeting Day. Senator Gannett himself served as a Town Meeting Representative starting from the town's first meeting until 2011, a year before he died.

I, too, serve as a town meeting representative. Our Charter articulates two methods to get on the ballot. A candidate may submit a notice of intent, or 10 voters in the district may nominate a candidate using a certificate of nomination. For some odd reason, I am sure known only to our supremely capable Town Clerk, Annette Cappy, each form had its own filing date. This year, Brattleboro's Town Meeting proposed, very reasonably, to require filing these petitions with the Town Clerk by the same deadline. And every charter change, no matter how small, must be approved by the Legislature.

The town of Charlotte seeks a method to increase voter turnout for budget votes. Although some Vermont towns have attacked poor participation by entirely switching to Australian ballot, Charlotte decided to test-run a hybrid system. The proposed charter changes enable the town to hold a regular town meeting in which budget-related articles are debated at the floor meeting, and citizens can vote. But the vote will not become official until the voters approve the budget and related articles by Australian ballot. If a budget is approved by town meeting but then is defeated by Australian ballot, the Select Board must prepare a revised budget. The people of Charlotte will try this system for a few years before deciding whether to make the change permanent.

By far the charter change that raised the most eyebrows was submitted by the Village of Barton. Barton's charter dates back to the mid-1880s, and before this year, it still had a poll tax on the books, complete with jail time if you neglected to pay the tax. Of course, poll taxes have long been declared unconstitutional. The people of Barton felt their charter should be updated to reflect both current practice and deeply held beliefs about freedom and democracy.

In the midst of all the charter change bills, a senator sent me a note that read, "Senator Balint, when you are very bad, you are sent to hell. It is a room in which one is made to sit in a chair and listen to charter changes all day."

Surely, my spouse later joked, the Senate could have spent that time on more pressing matters. But on further reflection, we both agreed that refining the terms on which we agree to live together is vitally important. Our Town Charters identify what we value, and they provide us mechanisms for living together peacefully and resolving our difficulties through discussion and deliberation. The Legislature's role in the Town Charter process is constitutionally mandated. It reminds us that even though Charlotte and Brattleboro may seem worlds apart, we are part of the larger Vermont community: a community grounded in carefully guarded traditions and a spirit of innovation.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County.


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