Essex residents approved a controversial ballot measure meant to give different sides of town equal representation on the selectboard.
The question aims to change the makeup of the board from five at-large members to six members — three from Essex Junction and three from the town outside the village. Now, the Legislature must approve the charter change.
Even those opposing the change acknowledged that the 4,029 to 2,611 vote represented a call for an equal voice in town government.
“The message to the selectboard and village trustees is that fair representation is what people care about most after taxes,” said Selectboard Chair Elaine Haney, who had campaigned against the measure.
The question tapped into a vein of frustration that the selectboard had overlooked, according to Ken Signorello, one of two residents who petitioned the town to put the question to the ballot.
“We were listening” to the people, he said. “The staff, selectboard, wasn’t.”
As the village and town have grown in tandem over time, so has the conflict, he said. “They’ve been conflicting since 1958. There’s a lot of built-up animosity.”
Under the current system, five trustees govern the village. A five-member selectboard oversees the town as a whole. Residents of the village, which has additional services including its own library and fire department, pay higher taxes. Those living in more suburban and rural areas have different interests that should be equally represented on the board, Signorello maintained.
“This provides a clear way forward so that everyone can have a seat at the table,” he said.
Signorello and Irene Wrenner led an aggressive campaign printing lawn signs, sending emails, and knocking on more than 1,000 doors. While the measure passed overall, the town outside the village made up a majority of the “yes” votes. The village voted against the measure 53% to 47%.
At Town Meeting Monday night, voters worried that the question would have the opposite effect: that it would institutionalize the divide between the town and the village.
“This proposal is establishing around the one thing that divides us — which is our taxes and the provision of services,” said resident Gabrielle Smith.
Residents worried about the impact of having an even number of selectboard members and how they’d break a tie. Some residents said it would decrease representation because Essex residents could only vote for three candidates instead of five.
“I’m strongly opposed to this proposal for its lack of redistricting provision, because it’s actually creating a problem we’re trying to solve,” said Brian Shelden, who led a campaign opposing the measure.
After the vote, Haney said she worried it could interrupt a village-town merger that she hopes will pass in the November election. It could also breed even more distrust and division.
Nevertheless, Haney said she’d do her best to enact the will of the people. “The residents have spoken and we will listen,” she said. “That’s the most important thing.”
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