Editor’s Note: This story by Liberty Darr was first published by the Citizen on May 25.
The ad hoc group of residents in Charlotte spearheading the petition to switch to a town manager form of government led a special meeting Tuesday night to answer questions from the selectboard and residents.
Although the group’s petition garnered 200 votes — enough to force a town vote — it has agreed to work with the selectboard instead of filing the petition with the town clerk and forcing a vote.
But some selectboard members have felt the petition was “uncooperative” from the start, especially at a time when the selectboard was attempting to pass a budget.
“Everybody knows that the budget failed,” selectboard member Kelly Devine said. “Why take the route of the petition while we were in the midst of dealing with that significant challenge rather than coming to the selectboard before going forward with the petition?”
“What made the petition feel aggressive is because it doesn’t acknowledge the time constraints that we’re under to replace this position,” she continued.
With town administrator Dean Bloch retiring in October, the group — comprised of Jim Hyde, Charlie Russell, Peter Joslin, Alexa Lewis and Lane Morrison — has worked since March with attorneys and other town officials and selectboard members to help outline a way forward.
“I thought by getting this going, it would get a focus and that’s what has happened,” said Morrison, who had been chair of the selectboard for almost six years before calling it quits three years ago. “From our point of view, we did not want to miss the sequencing of the retirement and kick this can down the road for four months.”
According to their research, 73% of municipalities with a population of more than 2,500 have a town manager form of government and as Charlotte faces some major town-wide issues, the group stressed that this as an ideal time for the switch.
In a packet submitted by the group prior to the meeting, they list seven major areas the town will begin to consider in the coming months: lack of growth and vitality in village districts; lack of housing, particularly for moderate- and lower-income households; ongoing budgetary challenges; town garage and a future highway department; governance of Charlotte Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service; traffic calming measures in the east and west villages; and protecting areas of high public value.
The only way forward, the group says, is by “freeing the selectboard from the day-to-day town decisions by changing governance to a town manager, thereby enabling the selectboard to focus on the future.”
The switch should also expedite selectboard meetings, which often last upward of three hours.
“The selectboard has worked many hours. You had an agenda with 10 or 12 items on it at your meeting last night,” said Morrison. “You’re meeting all the time. Some of the officials I talked to, the selectboard chair of both Shelburne and Hinesburg, said there’s so much more efficiency with key points.”
A town manager acts as a chief administrative officer and has direct duties and authority laid out in state statute. A town administrator does not have the same authority and is instead governed more directly by a selectboard.
“(The selectboard) can delegate as little or as much as they want within the law, of course,” said Rick McGuire, a search consultant with Vermont League of Cities and Towns. “But the town manager’s position is spelled out very specifically under state law and that outlines all the powers and duties.”
The group argues that a town manager brings demonstrated expertise to the town, much like a CEO who reports to a board of directors. Key skills for the candidate should include communication, leadership, expertise in human resources, digital literacy, operational planning, financial management, expertise in the legal framework and cost containment.
The change would also allow those with full-time employment to serve on the selectboard more effectively because of the lower time commitment.
Some residents questioned whether this potential shift in control is exactly what members of the selectboard fear.
“It sounds like you felt a little defensive and a little threatened that this petition came along at a time when you guys had this (budget) crisis,” resident Mike Russell said. “What I heard was, ‘We have this immediate (budget) issue that we have to solve that keeps us from thinking about a long-term change in the structure of the town,’ and that’s exactly why you want to be able to delegate that stuff to somebody who is going to handle that.”
The group agreed to another public meeting with the selectboard, tentatively scheduled for June 5.
“You’re giving the impression that it’s a little bit of chaos. I think to be fair to the selectboard and Dean (Bloch), we’re not running into chaos here,” selectboard chair Jim Faulkner said. “We’re not looking for someone to come in and be a leader. That being said, a town manager could help us and that’s what we’re here to find out. But there’s no magic by calling somebody a town manager.”
To VLCT or not
With only five months left to hire a new town administrator — or town manager — the Charlotte selectboard is beginning a procurement process with some help from Vermont League of Cities and Towns but has resolved to keep most of the process in-house.
Earlier this month, the league sent Charlotte a proposal for town administrator search services totaling more than $12,000 for advertising, application screenings, interviewing candidates and conducting background and reference checks.
But following a contentious budget season that forced a slew of cuts, Faulkner reminded the board, “We have not budgeted for this. I don’t see why we can’t do a lot of this in-house.”
“It’s not a good time to be allocating five-digit contracts that we haven’t budgeted for,” member Lewis Mudge said.
Selectboard member Lousie McCarren urged the board to “maintain control of the process.”
As a solution, the selectboard is working to form an advisory search committee to oversee the process as opposed to delegating the work exclusively to the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
“What we had come up with the other day was to take VLCT for the advertisement and possibly the background check,” Faulkner said. “Everything else we were going to do.”
“I have personally served on these types of committees for hiring of very significant positions in the city of Burlington and I found that they worked well,” Devine added.