Ferrisburgh selectboard has charter ready to go

FERRISBURGH — Ferrisburgh residents will probably vote as soon as this spring whether to approve the town’s first charter, one that would give the Ferrisburgh selectboard the power to appoint the town’s clerk and treasurer.
Elected officers now fill those positions, and selectboard members have not been pleased with the town treasurer’s job performance, but have said they have little recourse to deal with the issue because of his elected status.
On Feb. 7 the selectboard adopted the proposed charter, and Board Chairwoman Loretta Lawrence said at its Feb. 21 meeting board members plan to set dates for an Australian ballot vote on the document and the two public hearings that must come before that vote.
If residents back the charter, state law also requires the Vermont Legislature to give the final OK.
“We have to get residents’ approval first, and then legislators will bless it or not,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence said she hopes the town process can be completed in time for the Legislature to act during this session.
But is not clear at this point, Lawrence said, what the warning-date requirements are for the hearings and whether that timetable is realistic. Town officials are still researching the law and hope to have answers before the selectboard’s Feb. 21 meeting.
Still, Lawrence acknowledged it could be next winter before lawmakers will consider a charter approved by the town.
On Feb. 21 board members also must choose a date to add to the charter for when the board’s new appointing powers would take effect; Lawrence said she will recommend July 1 to the board, understanding that if the Legislature cannot act until next winter the early appointment date will be moot.
But Lawrence said local House Reps. Warren Van Wyck and Diane Lanpher advised the selectboard that an effective appointment-power date is needed to complete the charter and allow the Legislature to vote on the document.
“They need that date in there to facilitate their part,” Lawrence said.
The two-page charter includes basic language giving the town the right to “continue to be a municipal corporation” with “all the powers granted to towns and municipal corporations by the Constitution and laws of the State … together with all implied powers necessary to carry into execution all the powers granted,” including to “enact ordinances” consistent with the Vermont Constitution.
Most of the rest of the document — written by the town attorney after reviewing other town charters, per Lawrence — deals with the selectboard’s right to appoint the town clerk and treasurer, set their hours and pay, and write their job descriptions — as is already done with other town employees.
It’s no secret the selectboard has been unhappy with Treasurer Garrit Smits, and that unhappiness led the board to seek to write a charter giving them appointment power.
Board members and town auditors say bill payments have not been made on time, resulting in fees for the town, including two late charges from the IRS, and that Smits has not worked regular hours even though he is paid on the basis of 35 hours a week. Professional auditors also recently stated that some accounts are not reconciled, bank deposits have not been made in a timely manner, and fund balances were not recorded.
Smits has said the selectboard unfairly reduced his hours, that he has made changes and signed contracts that have saved the town money, and many late payments were the fault of Road Foreman John Bull for not submitting invoices in a timely manner. Bull disputed that contention in a phone call and letter to the Independent.
The selectboard has been frustrated about its inability to work with Smits to correct what members see as serious problems, because as an elected official Smits answers to voters, not to the board.
Smits filed to be on the Town Meeting Day ballot to retain his position, and is being challenged by town auditor Deb Healey. Smits also is also challenging Town Clerk Gloria Warden for her post. Those races will be decided by Australian ballot on March 7.
The charter change is a path that Panton and other towns around the state have also chosen. Panton in 2014 joined the then roughly dozen Vermont towns — including Vergennes, Stowe, Springfield and Berlin, as well as a number of larger communities — that appoint clerks and treasurers.
Panton officials have in the past two-plus years said the charter change has worked well for their small town.
Panton Selectboard Chairman Howard Hall described a sense among current and former board members that the change was one of the best things they accomplished.
Hall said all town employees, including the clerk and treasurer, are now covered by a personnel policy that offers “equal, fair and consistent treatment for all employees” as well as establishes consistent disciplinary procedures.
He said the selectboard had no issues with its clerk, who remained on the job through the transition, or treasurer, but was concerned about what could happen in the future in a town, like Ferrisburgh, that does not have a town manager to oversee operations of elected officials.
“A selectboard member doesn’t really have time to monitor their daily activities,” Hall said. “It does make you feel powerless. You do have a fiduciary responsibility.”
If there were a conflict with another elected official, Hall described what he and fellow board members feared could happen.
“Basically they can thumb their nose at you,” he said. “They can say, ‘What are you going to do? You can’t fire me.’”
Lawrence said having hiring and firing power over town employees would allow the Ferrisburgh selectboard to protect its town from future problems.
“With this situation, the job isn’t getting done, and the elected official isn’t making sure the job is getting done,” said Lawrence, adding, “If an appointed person isn’t doing the job it’s going to show up fast, and it’s easier to remedy the problem, I think, than if it’s an elected official. We hope not to be in this position again.”
Lawrence said residents would retain power because they could vote the selectboard out of office if they didn’t like the board’s performance.
“I also think that the voters could petition the selectboard. There are ways if they are really concerned,” she said. “I think there are safety checks if you are elected officials on the selectboard.”
The proposed charter is brief in describing duties for the clerk and treasurer, but also gives the selectboard the power to write job descriptions. 
“We tried not to put too much in the charter,” Lawrence said. “But we will further that by giving job descriptions.”
The selectboard on Feb. 7 made a unanimous decision to open up the clerk and treasurer positions to non-residents.
“We would like to broaden the scope of applicants,” Lawrence said. “You just don’t want to limit your resources. It may well be you don’t have to leave Ferrisburgh.”
Selectboard members are on record in minutes as saying the situation in Ferrisburgh is similar to the worst-case scenario that Hall described in Panton.
Selectmen Red Muir and Jeff Warden at the Feb. 7 meeting joined two residents in calling for a selectboard vote of no confidence in Smits and a motion of support for Healey in the treasurer’s contest.
But Lawrence said the board took no action, in part because it was not a pre-warned agenda item.
“That was all public comment,” Lawrence said. “It wouldn’t be appropriate to take a vote of no confidence, especially in public comment.”
However, Lawrence said, Healey has the “abilities and expertise in bookkeeping” to be an effective treasurer.
“I think the board unanimously supports Deb Healey,” Lawrence said. “I think the minutes speak for themselves.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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