Ferrisburgh charter vote on tap

FERRISBURGH — Ferrisburgh’s town-wide vote on a proposed town charter will be held next Thursday, May 11, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Ferrisburgh’s Route 7 town office building.
That two-page charter, if approved on May 11 and then adopted as required by the Vermont Legislature, would most notably change the town clerk and treasurer’s positions from elected posts to positions filled by selectboard appointment.
The proposed charter is brief in describing clerk and treasurer’s duties, but gives the selectboard the power to write job descriptions. It also states the jobholders do not have to be Ferrisburgh residents.
The 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.
The driver behind the selectboard’s decision to propose the charter was dissatisfaction with the work 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.
A recently completed audit of the months between July and February uncovered “federal tax deposits … not submitted correctly,” “late filing of W2s” from 2014, a letter “indicating that the Town had not filed their 2015 Annual Withholding Reconciliation … and the required accompanying W2s and 1099s,” a Vermont Department of Taxes letter indicating an unpaid amount of $2,849.56 and about $43 of penalties, three late IRS payments from 2016, and a Social Security Administration notice that it lacks W2s and W3s from 2015.
Selectboard members were frustrated with their inability to deal with these and similar problems because the treasurer answered to voters, not to them.
According to minutes from the second public hearing on the charter, on April 17, in response to a question from the lone attendee board members also cited short hours worked, unpaid bills, unmade deposits and un-reconciled accounts.
Minutes read, “The former treasurer did not answer to the selectboard. (Chairwoman) Loretta (Lawrence) stated that this was the main reason to pursue the proposed charter. (Selectman) Jim Benoit also stated that our outside, professional auditor recommended pursuing a town charter.”   
Minutes also stated that Selectman Rick Ebel said the charter “would protect the town in the future” in a similar situation arose. In an interview this week, Lawrence said she agreed.
“You never know what will happen in the future,” she said.
In response to another question on April 17, board members said adopting the charter would not have a financial impact, although it could save some money on benefits because the treasurer’s position is proposed to be 20 hours per week.
Other questions asked at the first public hearing, on April 10, included if the board could just appoint a clerk or treasurer, or whether the positions would have to be advertised. Lawrence said the board could make an appointment or advertise for a larger pool of applicants.
Another question focused on amending the charter in the future. The process would be, according to state statute, essentially the same as creating a new charter and could be triggered by citizen petition or selectboard decision. An amendment would require two public hearings, a town-wide vote, and approval by the Legislature.
The board chose Sept. 5 as the date the board would gain the appointment powers outlined in the charter, assuming approval. 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 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.
Lawrence hopes residents back the board’s proposal, and that they turn out to express their opinions.
“I hope the public supports it, and people get out to vote,” she said. “I hope for a good turnout.” 

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