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Vergennes talks new city charter

“I do believe I am a member of this community, and I would like to have a voice in this community.”
— Nial Rele, city resident but not a U.S. citizen

VERGENNES — At a Dec. 17 session devoted to a possible new city charter, Vergennes city leaders discussed whether to include provisions that would allow non-citizens to vote in civic elections, change a section describing the city’s boundaries, and increase elected terms for some councilors from two to three years.
Major changes in the charter include provisions that could pave the way for earlier voting hours, local option taxes, and a restructuring of city office personnel.
Members of the Vergennes City Council also talked about a number of housekeeping changes to a draft they will present at public hearings on Jan. 21 and 28, at 6 p.m. both nights, at the city’s Green Street fire station. City Clerk Joan Devine said a third public hearing could be held in February if the council feels it is necessary.
The council would like to hold a citywide vote on a revised charter on Town Meeting Day, and if it is supported send it to Montpelier for required approval by the Vermont Legislature.
One version of the charter may be viewed online at Vergennes.org — on the left side of the home page there is a link titled “PROPOSED CHARTER REVISION,” from which the document can be downloaded.
Left largely untouched at last week’s council meeting were several of the major reasons councilors first looked at revising the existing charter:
• Empowering the city’s Board of Civil Authority to establish polling hours, rather than simply setting them in stone in the charter. That change could allow that board to open polls at 7 a.m., not at 9 a.m. as now specified in the charter. Mayor Jeff Fritz and councilors in the past have said some residents have told them they wished the city’s polling hours would begin at an earlier hour that could allow them to vote on the way to work.
The BCA consists of the city council, the city clerk and Vergennes’ elected justices of the peace.
• Allowing the city council to propose local option taxes, something residents would also have to ultimately back in a city-wide vote.
Vermont law gives municipalities the power to add a local option tax of 1% to the state alcoholic beverage, sales, and rooms and meals taxes, but only with voter approval. The power to ask residents for such taxes must be embedded within a municipal charter. 
Fritz has said the council would probably 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.
• Giving the city manager supervisory power over the city clerk and city treasurer, rather than having them report directly to the city council. Fritz has said council members believe it is difficult for a city council to oversee the city’s clerk and treasurer, while the city manager is better positioned to supervise and examine the clerk’s job performance.
CHARTER SCRUTINY
Other items in the proposed charter came under more scrutiny, including from former city managers Mel Hawley and Renny Perry, the latter also a former mayor. Both had looked over a council draft largely prepared, with direction from the entire council, by Councilor Mark Koenig.
Koenig will re-draft the 30-page charter again before the public hearings incorporating some of the suggestions they made.
Some changes have already been agreed upon, for example Hawley’s suggestion to change references to “members of the city council” to “councilors.”
The proposed charter would increase city council 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.
The language is modeled after Winooski’s charter, and Fritz and councilors have said the goal is to provide continuity for future councils because the current system of two-year terms means the council could potentially lose half its members every two years.
But Hawley said almost every other city in Vermont relies on two-year terms, while Perry said in his experience in Vergennes, “I’ve never seen the two-year terms be a problem.”
Zoning administrator and resident Peter Garon also favored the two-year terms due to the “level of accountability” they provided.
As with all of the issues discussed, Deputy Mayor Lynn Donnelly and other councilors said they would listen to residents’ opinions on the question at the upcoming hearings.
The non-citizen voting provision would allow people who live in Vergennes but are not U.S. citizens to vote in municipal elections, but not allow them to cast ballots in state or federal elections or for justices of the piece.
Hawley objected because of the administrative burden he said it would impose on the city clerk to maintain separate voter lists.
Perry said voting should be limited to citizen residents, calling it a privilege of citizenship.
Non-citizen Nial Rele, who lives in Vergnnes, described himself as a native of India who identified more with the U.S. He came down on the other side of the issue. Rele said he has paid taxes for years in Vergennes and serves on the boards of the Bixby Library and the United Way of Addison County.
“I think it’s an opportunity to make a statement,” Rele said. “I do believe I am a member of this community, and I would like to have a voice in this community.”
Hawley recommended strongly the proposed charter replace the original language it retains from the current charter that describes the city’s boundaries. That language dates from its 1788 incorporation and describes a 1,200-acre community, when in fact the city taxes 1,660 acres, according to city tax mapping.
The issue of the city’s inaccurately described boundaries cropped up in the 1990s, when it was first raised by the Ferrisburgh selectboard, but then dropped by that board and selectboards in Panton and Waltham, whose towns were also affected. The Ferrisburgh and Panton selectboards recently discussed revisiting the situation after the Agency of Transportation began discussing a truck route that could go over land in theoretically uncertain territory.
Hawley, however, said the land is firmly and legally under the city’s control because Vergennes has taxed it since the 1860s, rendering other claims moot per state law. He recommended language describing the city’s boundaries based on tax mapping, not the original survey, and said the council should delay the charter process if necessary to handle the issue.
“If you’re going to submit a charter to the legislature, you should deal with this once and for all,” Hawley said, adding, “Slow down and get these lines crystal clear.”
Koenig said at the meeting he would rather not delay adoption of the charter revision, something city officials have talked about for years, over the boundary question.  
In a phone interview with the Independent on Wednesday, he suggested another path.
“We could also amend the charter next year with this one piece,” Koenig said.
‘MICRO-MANAGING’?
Hawley brought up a number of issues, although one he brought up appeared to be inadvertent: A section that established the boards of listers and auditors was removed, and Koenig said it was an accident.
Hawley also questioned provisions that he said needlessly complicated the 30-page charter.
For example, Hawley said a section outlining the duties of the city manager was not necessary because they are outlined under state law.
“Title 37 gives the city manager all kinds of authority,” he said. “If you like them all, you’re good with those.”
Hawley also cited a requirement that the city manager require department heads to “submit work programs for the ensuing fiscal year showing the required allotments of its appropriations by periods within the year,” and another that required the treasurer to make regular reports to the council.
These were several examples of “micro-managing” Hawley believed could be found within the proposed charter, and he said, for example, he could think of better things for public works head Jim Larrow to focus upon.
“I’d rather have him building sidewalk,” he said. “Is some of this excessive?”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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