Article 3 on the March 2 ballot asks Brattleboro voters to decide whether the town charter should be amended to allow a greater degree of self-governance to be exercised by the people of Brattleboro. Specifically, if approved by Brattleboro voters and then by the state legislature, this article would allow future charter changes to be made by Brattleboro voters (and affirmed by the Brattleboro Select Board) without having to obtain the state legislature’s approval, as long as the provisions being adopted already exist in at least one other municipal charter in Vermont.
At first glance, this may seem like a mundane administrative matter. I urge voters to look more closely and to consider this article carefully, as it is not merely a question of procedure but actually a question of how democracy is calibrated in our community and our state.
Vermont is a “Dillon’s Rule” state, which means municipalities can only take actions that are explicitly permitted by the state. Most other states are “Home Rule” states, where municipalities can take any action that is not explicitly prohibited by the state. Under Home Rule, municipalities have much more flexibility to address local concerns and desires with local action because they don’t have to search for explicit authority in state statutes or go through the cumbersome process of amending their charter to obtain such explicit authority. Under Dillon’s Rule, we spend significant time and energy on such efforts to confirm that we have the authority to take actions that are deemed necessary or desirable by the people in our community. Sometimes we find that authority has not been granted and we are not able to implement the desired action.
Currently, these limitations can’t be cured by local action on municipal charters because Vermont Law requires the state legislature’s approval before charter changes approved by a town’s voters become effective as part of that town’s governance. The legislature often rejects or modifies provisions that have been approved by a municipality’s voters. A recent example is a charter change approved by Bennington’s voters that would have established attendance requirements for members of the Bennington Select Board. The state legislature rejected that change and prevented it from being implemented.
The Vermont League of Cities and Towns represents municipal interests at the state legislature and has tried for many years to expand the ability of municipalities to take locally appropriate actions in addressing locally identified concerns. In furtherance of those efforts, several municipalities (including Brattleboro) recently decided to pursue charter changes that would enable us to exercise a greater degree of self-governance within the existing confines of Dillon’s Rule. The proposal is to allow voters in participating municipalities to exercise their own discretion to adopt charter provisions that already exist in the charter of any other Vermont municipality. The justification is that when the state legislature has already approved a given provision for one municipality then other municipalities should be able to adopt that same provision without having to ask the legislature for approval. Local adoption of such provisions into a municipal charter would still require the approval of the voters of the adopting municipality.
While the question printed on the ballot for Article 3 had to be phrased in more legalistic language, the essence of that question is this: Should the people of Brattleboro be able to exercise a greater degree of self-governance to be more creative, efficient, and flexible in addressing Brattleboro’s local concerns with Brattleboro’s preferred solutions?