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Vergennes Council tables vote on a new city charter

I have a feeling this survey issue is not going to be a couple months.
— Vergennes City Councilor Mark Koenig

VERGENNES — The Vergennes City Council on Jan. 14 decided to slow its timetable for seeking approval of a new city charter. A public vote probably will not happen until 2021 at the earliest, as council members pointed to the ongoing uncertainty about the city’s boundaries.
The council, however, will still hold its public meeting devoted to the proposed charter this Tuesday. That meeting is set for Jan. 21 at 6 p.m. at the Vergennes fire station.
Councilor Mark Koenig, who has spearheaded the rewrite effort on behalf of the council, said the meeting should still go on, in part out of fairness to volunteers like Mel Hawley and Renny Perry, who have helped with the charter review and rewrite. 
“People have been re-writing and revising … and want to talk about the charter,” Koenig said.
Hawley had recommended at a council meeting last month the charter be delayed. As proposed, it uses the original incorporation language, which describes a 1,200-acre community carved out of surrounding towns, mostly Ferrisburgh.
But Hawley said tax mapping showed a 1,600-acre city of properties that Vergennes has been taxing since the 1860s. He said that is ample evidence according to statute to establish the legal boundaries.
The Ferrisburgh selectboard raised the issue in the 1990s that it had a claim to land now understood to be in Vergennes, but eventually decided not to pursue the claim. Waltham and Panton selectboards at that point also said they were not interested in expanding their towns’ turf.
But late last year a new Ferrisburgh selectboard said that in light of the proposed truck route through northern Vergennes — and the development an Agency of Transportation study said the road would spark — the boundaries should be revisited.
Koenig said at last Tuesday’s city council meeting that he had recently sat down with city attorney Jim Ouimette, who Koenig said recommended the boundary issue be dealt with in a new charter.
“Jim’s big problem is the boundaries. He doesn’t think we should go forward until those are set,” Koenig told the council.
Koenig said Ouimette’s concern about including the original chartered boundary description in the proposed charter could be interpreted as, “We are saying these are the boundaries, and it’s hard to change (them).”
Koenig said Ouimette said ultimately the Legislature will decide what the boundaries are, and it would be best to discuss the issue with the other affected towns before trying to proceed.
Koenig described his takeaway to the rest of the council, who then agreed.  
“The charter will not be done on Town Meeting Day,” he said. “Maybe we can get it out next town meeting. I have a feeling this survey issue is not going to be a couple months.”
Koenig added the ongoing debate about the boundaries could jeopardize the proposed truck route if not resolved among the local communities. Any charter change requires not only a majority vote in Vergennes, but also approval of the Legislature, he said, which might want to see agreement on the issue.
Panton officials are unsure they want the route to go through any part of their town. And if Ferrisburgh presses a claim for land in northern Vergennes those issues could show a lack of the regional support VTrans officials insist must be in place if the agency is to back a truck route.
Vergennes officials call the truck route the Vergennes Economic Corridor because the VTrans study showed the new road would lead to economic benefits through opening land in northern Vergennes to development, as well as by removing unwanted truck traffic from the city’s downtown. 
“If we are going to have the corridor, we need to know our boundaries,” Koenig said.
The delay means the council will not be able any time soon to propose a local option tax to fund infrastructure projects downtown and in the basin area, as it had hoped to do. The right to do so must be in a charter, per state law.
Koenig said the council could propose an amendment to the existing charter that would only add a local option tax provision, not redo the whole thing.
But most of the council preferred to wait and present to the Legislature just one time.
“I think it makes a whole lot of sense to do it right and take our time,” said Mayor Jeff Fritz.
Other changes proposed in the draft charter include:
•  Empowering 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.
That change could allow that board to allow voting to start at 7 a.m., not at 9 a.m. as now specified in the charter. City officials have said some residents have told them they wish the city’s polling hours would begin earlier.
•  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 evaluate the clerk’s performance.
 •      Increasing 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.
City council members said the changes would mean in the future fewer councilors would come up for election each year, ensuring more continuity on the council. Not everyone at a December public hearing agreed with this provision, including Perry and Hawley.
•  Allowing non-citizen residents to vote in municipal elections, but not to cast ballots in state or federal elections or for justices of the peace. Hawley and Perry objected, but others said long-time residents should have a voice in how their community is run.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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