Ferrisburgh makes final plans for town charter

FERRISBURGH — The Ferrisburgh selectboard plans to review its proposed town charter with voters at Ferrisburgh’s annual town meeting, and the board will also recommend to residents that hearing and vote dates on the charter be set for as soon in the spring as possible, according to Selectboard Chairwoman Loretta Lawrence.
If residents agree, that could mean a charter adoption vote in early May, and the two town public hearings required by state law before the vote could be held in early and late April, with town-wide balloting to follow in early May.
The law requires those two hearings to be held within a 30 day-period leading up to the vote, and a 30-day warning period before the first hearing. Thus a vote cannot be held until about two months after town meeting.
If residents back the charter change in Australian balloting, whenever it is held, it would still need approval from the Legislature to take effect.
“At town meeting we’re going to bring it up for people who might not know about the charter, and we’re going to pick a date for the first hearing,” said Lawrence on Wednesday, a day after the board discussed its proposed charter at its Feb. 21 meeting.
Selectboard members on Feb. 21 also set Sept. 5 as the date the board would gain the powers granted it in the charter to appoint Ferrisburgh’s town clerk and treasurer.
Lawrence had planned to recommend July 1 as the effective date for that change, but said she learned from Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, that the Legislature might be able to OK the charter over the summer, making Sept. 5 a more logical timetable.
“He said there is stuff that can be done after they recess in April, where they can probably look at it,” Lawrence said.
The driver behind the selectboard’s decision to propose the charter, which would be Ferrisburgh’s first, has been the board’s dissatisfaction with the performance of elected Town Treasurer Garrit Smits.
Board members have said they are frustrated about their inability to work with Smits to correct what they and other town officials see as serious accounting problems, because as an elected official Smits answers to voters, not to the board.
Smits is running for re-election, but facing a challenge from former town auditor Deb Healey, who resigned from her post to run for treasurer. Smits is also challenging Town Clerk Gloria Warden, whom he defeated in a close race for treasurer three years ago, for her clerk post.
Selectboard members and town auditors say bill payments have not been made on time, resulting in fees for the town that include 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.
Earlier last week town auditor Walter Reed told the Independent of a newly discovered problem, that some information was apparently not submitted to the Social Security Administration. Town officials on Wednesday said they received a letter from that administration indicating Ferrisburgh employees’ 2015 W-2s and W-3s had never been received.
Professional auditors also recently stated that some accounts from 2016 were not reconciled, bank deposits had 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.
In the public comment portion of last week’s selectboard meeting, Lawrence said Smits faced criticism from Bull, Conservation Commission Chairman Craig Heindel and resident Monica Tupper.
The proposed charter, however, has so far generated little reaction from residents, Lawrence said.
“We haven’t gotten a lot of feedback yet,” Lawrence said. “I think people know about it. I think they are trusting us, hopefully. I guess we’ll know when the vote comes.”
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 — deals with the selectboard’s right to appoint the town clerk and treasurer, set their hours and pay, and write their job descriptions. It also states candidates for the two positions do not have to live in Ferrisburgh.
The proposed charter is brief in describing duties for the clerk and treasurer, but also gives the selectboard the power to write job descriptions. 
About a dozen other Vermont towns — including Vergennes, Stowe, Springfield and Berlin, as well as a number of larger communities, mostly cities — also appoint clerks and/or treasurers. Locally, Panton changed its charter in 2014 to make the treasurer and clerk appointed positions, and Panton selectboard members have said the move has worked well.
Lawrence said Ferrisburgh’s board members are confident the same will be true in their town.
“We feel this is the right time to do this. It’s a long time coming, and it might be the best thing that can happen to Ferrisburgh for our future,” she said. “I see nothing but positives from this.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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