Politics

White River Valley towns to form regional board, hoping to address rising municipal vacancies

Rochester in 2017. Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel via Wikimedia Commons

Five White River Valley towns plan to formalize a regional group in hopes of sharing municipal resources amid declining participation in local government.

Selectboard members from Granville, Hancock, Pittsfield, Rochester and Stockbridge have been meeting informally since the Covid-19 pandemic began, addressing community action-related projects. Now, representatives from each town plan to start hosting regularly scheduled, posted meetings, tentatively calling themselves the Quintown Valley Regional Board, as first reported by the Mountain Times. 

After consulting the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, members realized their informal group needed to take a formal approach, according to Ann Kuendig, chair of the Pittsfield Selectboard. The League is a nonprofit that supports local governments.

While specific plans remain up in the air, the group hopes to share municipal volunteers, tackling a rise in vacancies for appointed and elected positions.

“We — like other small towns — have difficulty in filling out positions and getting people to volunteer for things like energy coordinator or health officer,” Kuendig said. 

In Stockbridge, one constable position is vacant, and the town wants to hire a grant writer to support road maintenance after its last road commissioner retired, said Lee Ann Isaacson, chair of the selectboard. 

Already, Stockbridge has “handshake agreements” for sharing in-demand commercially licensed drivers with neighboring towns and businesses, and those arrangements may be formalized, Isaacson said.

Plus, as Stockbridge’s town clerk plans to retire, the town might consider amending its laws to allow an out-of-town resident to hold the position.

“We have a very small bank of people to draw from,” Isaacson said.

Similarly, in Hancock, the town is looking for a constable, health and animal control officers, and planning commission members, said Scott Gillette, chair of the selectboard. 

When the Quintown municipalities began meeting, they took on community support projects for those affected by Covid. That work blossomed organically into a group led by selectboard members from each town, said Linda Anderson, director of the Two Rivers district for Capstone Community Action; she has been working with the group since its inception. 

Anecdotally, Anderson said, it’s “getting harder” for towns to fill vacancies.

Last year, a Vermont League of Cities and Towns survey found that citizen engagement — whether by volunteers or candidates — was the third most common issue facing municipalities, cited by almost half of respondents. Towns are also having an increasingly difficult time hiring sought-after drivers with commercial licenses.  

Some forms of regional governance are not new. For instance, some small towns contract with sheriff’s departments for policing, and regional ambulance providers service several towns. 

But Abby Friedman, municipal assistance center director at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, said the proposal by the Quintown board may chart new territory.

“We are familiar with municipalities working together through interlocal contracts to share staff or equipment. Several towns and villages share staff, such as Woodstock Town and Village,” she said. “I’m not familiar with instances where more than two municipalities have done something similar.”

Kevin Geiger, director of planning at the Two-Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission, which includes the Quintown Valley communities, called the towns’ decision “the shape of things to come.”

“I think (towns) are having a harder time filling volunteer positions overall,” Geiger said. In other parts of the country, some appointed town jobs are paid, which encourages participation.

“And the public support of officials is waning,” he added.

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Ethan Weinstein

About Ethan

Ethan Weinstein is a general assignment reporter focusing on Windsor County and the surrounding area. Previously, he worked as an assistant editor for the Mountain Times and wrote for the Vermont Standard.

Email: [email protected]

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