Ferrisburgh talks over a proposed town charter

FERRISBURGH — Questions were few from the eight residents who came on April 10 to Ferrisburgh’s Route 7 town hall for the  first of two required public hearings on the Ferrisburgh selectboard’s proposed town charter, which of officials believe would be the  first in the 255-year-old town’s history.
According to town of officials only one resident attended the second hearing on this past Monday.
If approved in a May 11 town-wide vote and then adopted by the Vermont Legislature, as required by state law, the two-page charter would most notably change the town clerk and treasurers positions from elected posts to positions  filled by selectboard appointment.
The charter also 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.
The proposed charter is brief in describing duties for the clerk and treasurer, but also gives the selectboard the power to write job descriptions. It also includes a provision that the jobholders do not have to be Ferrisburgh residents.
The driver behind the selectboard’s decision to propose the charter was dissatisfaction with the performance of the town’s former treasurer. Board members said they could not enforce what they believed were needed changes because the treasurer did not answer to them, but rather to voters.
Selectboard members believe in the future the town will operate better with employees in those positions who answer to the board. They presented that rationale at the hearings on both April 10 and 17. Overall, board chairwoman Loretta Lawrence last week described a calm, 50-minute meeting on April 10.
“It was actually quite quiet. We had a few questions,” she said, adding, “There was no opposition.”
Lawrence said during the hearings the board went over the entire charter and paused frequently to allow questions.
“We explained how people would be treated as employees, subject to review and personnel policies,” she said.
Two major questions arose on April 10, Lawrence said. One resident asked if the board could just appoint a clerk or treasurer, or whether the positions would have to be advertised.
Lawrence said the board “could solicit a larger pool of applicants if need be,” but would not be required to do so.
“We did get advice from that on our attorney. We can do either,” she said.
The other significant question focused on whether and how the charter could be amended in the future. Lawrence said she assured the resident it could be amended, but that she did not have the relevant law with her at the meeting.
Lawrence later provided the statute to the Independent and said she would bring it to the next hearing: Essentially, changing the charter is much like creating the charter.
It states the selectboard, or a resident who gathered 5 percent of the checklist on a petition in support of a change, could trigger
an amendment process that would require two public hearings, a town-wide vote, and approval by the Legislature.
“To amend the charter would be the same process,” Lawrence said.
Also speaking on April 10 was former selectwoman Sally Torrey, who according to Lawrence backed the proposed charter.
“Sally Torrey spoke up about why people might feel their rights would be taken away to elect people, but that it would be a good thing to go to appointed (positions) because it would be the selectboard you could vote out of office. Every year there are two people up for office,” Lawrence said “In actuality if you’re not happy with the appointments you could vote the selectboard out. She was supportive.”
The board chose Sept. 5 as the date the board would gain the powers outlined in the charter to appoint Ferrisburgh’s clerk and treasurer. But it appears unlikely the Legislature will still be in session with time to act on the charter, and probably the soonest it could take effect if voters support it would be early next year.
Residents in March re-elected Gloria Warden as town clerk and voted in former town auditor Deb Healey as Ferrisburgh’s new treasurer.
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.

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