Panton considers having selectboard choose town clerk, treasurer rather than voters

PANTON — Panton residents on Town Meeting Day will decide whether they will continue to elect their own town clerk, treasurer and delinquent tax collector, or give the Panton selectboard the power to appoint people to those town offices.
That choice will be framed on March 4 as a potential change to the town’s land grant charter. Per state law, if voters back that change, which is being recommended and put forth by the selectboard, the Vermont Legislature would still have to approve it before it could take effect.
Selectboard members began discussing the charter change proposal late last summer, and wrote it with help from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and a VLCT attorney.
“It’s been fairly well-crafted, I think,” said board chairman John Viskup.
Viskup said there were two central drivers behind the board’s decision to propose the charter change, which would make Panton one of the few towns in the state not to have an elective town clerk. More towns and virtually all of Vermont’s larger cities have appointed treasurers, according to VLCT executive director Steven Jeffrey.
One driver is that the treasurer’s position is becoming increasingly complex, requiring compliance with more mandates from state government and investment knowledge.
Viskup said treasurers have served the town well in recent years, first M’Lissa Dayton and now Diane Merrill, who replaced Dayton and received some training from her.
But selectboard members are concerned what could happen in the future. Viskup said it could be difficult to replace Merrill given the town’s small population, about 700, if the position was restricted to residents by election requirements.
“We’re a small town,” Viskup said. “The pool is pretty small.”
Likewise, Viskup said selectboard members believe Town Clerk Jean Miller and delinquent tax collector Barb Fleming are doing good jobs.
“We are fortunate to have them,” Viskup said.
But in the long term the board does not believe it has control over the positions, nor of the town office if the clerk does not answer to them.
“(Clerks) can set their own hours. They can keep the office open at their convenience,” Viskup said.
He likened it to his days as a business owner.
“It think it’s hard to run a business where I don’t have control over the employees,” Viskup said.
Theoretically, if a future Panton selectboard was not happy with a future clerk, it could also be what Viskup called “a sticky situation” in which the board could be campaigning against someone with whom it must also work closely.
“We’d have to go to the voters and say, ‘Vote out this clerk,’” he said.
The selectboard also believes employees would have more job security under this system. For example, Viskup said employees wouldn’t have to be worried about a “small nucleus” of unhappy residents packing a town meeting and voting them out, as did occur to a member of the Panton selectboard a decade ago.
“It does happen,” Viskup said.
The selectboard did not discuss, he said, nor did any residents raise the issue during two January hearings of whether residents would be forfeiting any rights by approving the charter change.
VLCT’s Jeffrey said there is a movement among towns, albeit one that is just getting under way, toward appointive officers, particularly treasurers; he was also aware that Ferrisburgh had advertised for a hired assistant treasurer before a qualified resident decided last month to run for the post.
“The degree of professionalism required is something that has led them to believe they need a professional individual doing this, particularly the treasurer,” Jeffrey said.
Still, fewer towns have gone the route of having appointed clerks, although Jeffrey said short of reviewing every one of Vermont’s towns he could not immediately come up with an exact number. 
“It’s closer to five than 50,” he said.
Jeffrey said he was not particularly concerned with consolidation of authority under a selectboard if a clerk were to become an appointed position, and he noted Stowe went that route two years ago.
“It’s not like it’s a policy-making board,” he said.
State statutes, not the selectboard, would largely continue to define the role for Panton’s clerk, Jeffrey said.
 “Whoever holds the position has the protection of the state regulations,” Jeffrey said. “They detail what their job description is, basically.”
He noted a new state law allows towns to appoint listers without a charter change, and, given the increasing demands on treasurers, he believes a similar law for that position may not be far behind.
“I would not be surprised to see the Legislature consider a new law in three or four years to allow towns to appoint treasurers,” Jeffrey said.
And if Panton voters approve the charter change in March, Jeffrey made another prediction.
“It will probably be the tiniest town to have an appointed treasurer,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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