Committee begins detailed review of Bennington town charter

Stuart Hurd
Stuart Hurd, the town manager of Bennington. City photo

BENNINGTON — The town’s Charter Review Committee began a line-by-line review of the existing charter on Wednesday and quickly found that task could be complex and time-consuming.

The seven-member committee, appointed in July by the Selectboard, will review the 23-page document with an eye toward recommending amendments, to be submitted in a report to the board. The Selectboard will then decide which, if any, changes should be placed before town voters for adoption, and later submitted to the Legislature and governor for final approvals.

The committee also discussed having an enhanced online information and public commenting page on the town of Bennington website. Currently, there is information on the group’s meeting schedule, meeting minutes, and a copy of the Bennington charter on the town’s website.

Sean-Marie Oller, the committee’s co-chair, and other members said they would like to have a comment box people can check on to leave suggestions or comments or ask questions. It is hoped the seven committee members also will have access to the comments and be able to respond or add their own comments.

The feedback is expected to be discussed during the committee’s meetings, scheduled for Wednesdays from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. The group also plans to hold a public forum on possible charter amendments, and residents are invited to attend the weekly committee meetings to offer comments.

Some of the broad topics that have been mentioned include alterations to the current town manager/seven-member selectboard governmental format, such as a switch to a mayoral system; and taxing changes, such as adding a local option tax.

Today, the manager has authority to hire and manage employees, while the board hires the manager and approves policies and overall budgets.

The review committee had hoped to get through the first four chapters of the charter document Wednesday, but they halted after completing just one chapter and the preamble. A few language changes for clarification purposes or to update sections were discussed and either approved or left as is.

And there were some questions left open in the chapter, pending consultation with James Barlow, an attorney specializing in Vermont local government, who is advising the group.

The first chapter is titled Powers of the Town and includes broad statements such as “The Town of Bennington shall have all the power and functions conferred upon towns and villages by the Constitution and general laws of this state and shall also have all implied powers necessary to implement such powers and functions … .”

While approving a chapter section on Additional Town Powers, the committee decided to seek input from Barlow concerning authorization to “adopt, amend, repeal and enforce ordinances.”

Some topics were specifically noted as powers relating to “removal of garbage, ashes, rubbish, refuse, waste and scrap by the town … ,” and relating to specific areas of building code enforcement; “relating to the use of firearms in settled areas,” and to “packaging, marketing and handling of produce and other foodstuffs.”

Possible changes proposed included adding drone flying to this section and possibly eliminating some topics no longer applicable.

However, Town Manager Stuart Hurd, who attended the session, and committee Co-chair Robert Plunkett said that language on the specific powers of the town is actually authorized through state or possibly federal law or regulation.

Hurd said the section dates back at least to the 1960s and now would be covered through state law. “All our powers come down from the state,” he said.

The group will, however, refer some questions about that section to the consultant.

Among language changes approved were dropping a 15-day time limit for gathering citizen petition signatures to force a recall of an elected town official.

Section 104 of the first chapter, an amendment from the 1990s, states that a petition signed by at least 30 percent of registered town voters forces a recall vote. Group members said they felt that short time limit made a difficult process nearly impossible.

If those signatures were obtained, a special election would then be held, and it would still require a two-thirds majority vote to recall an official and vacate that office.

Town Clerk Cassandra Barbeau said 30 percent of registered voters would be more than 2,000 signatures.

Other charter chapters to be reviewed include those on elected town officers, appointed officers, compensation for officials; the Selectboard and its powers; the town manager and that official’s duties, authority and compensation, as well as the procedure for removal of a manager; taxation; fair market value of real estate; special assessments; the Bennington Downtown District; Fire District No. 1; the annual town budget; zoning and its administration; ordinances; the water system; and appointment of a charter review committee.

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