Council seeks new charter for Vergennes

We need to find some revenue, so (a local option tax) will be something we pursue. But that will require a vote. And when it comes to that, we’re working on our sales campaign.
— Mayor Jeff Fritz

VERGENNES — Vergennes residents will soon have the chance to weigh in on a new city charter that could change Vergennes voting hours, pave the way for the city council to propose local option taxes, create longer terms for city council members and place the city clerk under the supervision of the Vergennes city manager rather than the council.
Those, according to Mayor Jeff Fritz, are the major changes Vergennes City Council members are considering in a proposed new charter they will probably adopt at their Nov. 12 meeting, with residents’ consideration to follow.
Fritz said the process would include at least two public hearings before a citywide vote. The council is targeting Town Meeting Day in March for balloting on the charter question. If residents approve the charter, the Vermont Legislature would also need to ratify the document.
Fritz said the city’s two Representatives in Montpelier, Democrats Diane Lanpher and Matt Birong, have been involved as the council has looked at revising the charter, and they believe the Legislature could act in 2020 to approve an updated document.

The council’s study of the charter began with what Fritz called the most straightforward issue: Some residents over the years have said they wished the city’s polling hours would begin at 7 a.m., not at 9 a.m. as now specified in the charter. The earlier hours would be more convenient and allow them to vote on the way to work, they argue.
“There were some specific items that we wanted to address right away, not the least of which was our polling hours, which are outlined in our existing charter as 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.,” Fritz said. “And there are a number of folks who have complained about those hours.”
The council’s solution in the proposed charter is to empower the city’s Board of Civil Authority, which consists of the city council, the city clerk and Vergennes’ elected justices of the peace, to establish polling hours, rather than simply setting them in stone in the charter.

Over the years different Vergennes city councils have also debated whether to ask citizens for their approval of one or more local option taxes.
Vermont law gives municipalities the power to add a local option tax of 1 percent to the state alcoholic beverage, sales, and rooms and meals taxes, but only with voter approval. And, with rare exceptions, the power to ask residents for such taxes must be embedded within a municipal charter. 
Therefore, approving the charter does not mean the city council could just impose one or more local option taxes; residents would still have to vote in favor of a proposal.
But Fritz said the council is likely to propose a local option tax given the city’s tight finances and the council’s desire to make infrastructure improvements in areas such as the Otter Creek basin.
“We need to find some revenue, so it will be something we pursue. But that will require a vote. And when it comes to that, we’re working on our sales campaign. I have some pretty clear ideas what we would like to do with that money,” he said.

The proposed charter also would increase city council member terms from two to three years, while also calling for all current council members to stand for election the first March after the charter is adopted. Those terms would vary in length, but in the future convert to three-year terms; thus, fewer council members would stand for election in a given year.
Council members’ intent by including this provision, Fritz said, is to provide continuity for future councils. Currently the system of two-year terms means the city is potentially “losing half the council” every election, according to the mayor.
Fritz said the Vergennes council is following in Winooski’s footsteps in making this proposal.
“That was the impetus behind Winooski’s change, and this model is stolen almost verbatim from the city of Winooski,” he said.
 The language reads: “All positions on the City Council will be up for election at the first regularly scheduled election following the adoption of this Charter. Two council members and the Mayor will run for 3-year terms, two council members will run for 2-year terms, and two council members will run for 1-year terms. At the end of the first year, the two positions up for election will transition to 3-year terms. At the end of the second year, the two positions up for election will transition to 3-year terms. Starting in the third year following adoption of this Charter, all council positions will be on 3-year term cycles.”

The final major proposed change, according to Fritz, is “putting the city clerk/treasurer under the supervision of the city manager.”
Fritz said council members believe it is difficult for a city council to micro-manage and evaluate the city clerk/treasurer, while the city manager is better positioned to supervise and examine the job performance of the clerk.
“Not every member of the council has a hands-on relationship with city hall, so it’s really difficult for us to do a fair assessment,” he said.
City Clerk Joan Devine said the original October 1788 charter has been amended a number of times over the years. For example, in 1989 the city’s polling hours were extended from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. to the current 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Fritz said most of the other changes deal with outdated language or provisions that contradict state or federal law.    
“We’re no longer going to decide where the blacksmith shop is going to be,” he said. “And you no longer need to be 21 years of age to vote. So there was a lot of cleanup to be done.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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