Colchester voters approved two unique articles on this year’s ballot, sending a representative to a regional emergency service dispatch board and making the town clerk an appointed position.
Residents voted 1,445 to 1,191 in favor of the dispatch measure and approved the charter change by a vote of 1,661 to 979, according to an unofficial tally provided by town manager Dawn Francis.
Regional dispatch was proposed on ballots in seven cities and towns across the county and cleared in six: Colchester, Milton, Burlington, Winooski, Williston and South Burlington. Voters failed the measure in Shelburne, according to assistant town manager Aaron Frank.
The proposal suggests moving emergency dispatchers from a variety of police departments under one roof, allowing them to answer calls and deploy resources from a central location. The group will be governed as a union municipal district.
Frank has chaired a multi-town joint survey committee studying the model since January 2017. He maintains the consolidated dispatch operation could shorten emergency response times by an average 71 seconds.
“On behalf of the joint survey committee that spearheaded this effort, I want to thank the voters in Chittenden County for supporting this important measure,” Frank said in a press release following the vote. “Today’s vote was an exciting first step, but there is still a lot of work ahead of us.”
Frank said a board of directors with representation from each of the six supporting municipalities will be appointed in the next month to form the new government structure for the authority, taking input from the public safety community.
The organization is expected to begin providing services to communities over the next 12 to 24 months, Frank said.
A memo presented to the selectboard in December included letters of support from outgoing Colchester Rescue Chief Amy Akerlind, Colchester Center Fire Chief Michael Chmielewski, Malletts Bay Fire Department Chief Stephen Bourgeois, Colchester Police Chief Jennifer Morrison and Colchester Technical Rescue Chief Mike Cannon.
But police officer and dispatcher unions from around the county expressed their opposition to the proposal in a flurry of press releases issued just before the Tuesday vote, largely claiming it was unfair to ask for citizen approval before a clear operating plan and budget was in place.
Colchester dispatchers even took out an ad in last week’s Sun encouraging a “no” vote and stood outside the polls on Tuesday morning with signs that read, “Protect your public safety.”
One, Jonathan Wheeler, has dispatched for Colchester for 12 years and said he met with Frank and Morrison to discuss the proposal but felt his major concerns weren’t addressed.
Promises of internal growth opportunities are a plus, Wheeler agreed, but don’t outweigh concerns about mass layoffs and the challenges of learning to dispatch for a suite of new communities.
Standing with signs outside the polls gave the dispatchers a chance to interact directly with the public, Wheeler said. Indeed, a pair of residents proudly told him they voted against the measure as they exited Colchester High School on Tuesday morning. Another approached and asked for more information before taking a ballot.
Still, Wheeler said it was a bit unnerving to voice opposition to a plan his current employer strongly supports.
“If regional dispatch goes through, I probably won’t have a job if they want to be vengeful,” Wheeler said. “That’s the risk I take.”
Colchester voters gave some indication of their positive vote at the pre-Town Meeting event on Monday evening. One resident said the presentation offered that night convinced him consolidation was a good idea.
There, Chief Morrison said she understands dispatchers’ discomfort with the regional center, but said they were operating from a perspective of fear. She rebuked criticism of the undetermined costs associated with the effort, saying it was impossible to pin down such specifics before all players were at the table.
“Candidly, I have never once looked at this from a cost saving perspective,” Morrison said. “This is about safety. Safety for the public and safety for the first responders.”
The exact path forward to countywide consolidation is still unclear, but Colchester dispatchers may not remain in the Blakely Rd. station for long regardless of the timeline in other participating towns.
As the Sun reported earlier this year, Colchester, Milton and South Burlington announced they would pursue a separate “interim consolidation” to test the model before it went countywide.
Colchester currently dispatches services for Milton and is reimbursed based on its share of the total calls.
The Colchester Selectboard agreed to transfer $150,000 from the general fund to the dispatch enterprise fund to cover its share of costs for the so-called “pilot” consolidation.
At the time, Frank said it was unclear whether the mini-merger would happen before Town Meeting Day. Colchester dispatchers have remained at CPD since then.
Voters separately approved a proposed charter amendment supporting the town’s request to make the town clerk/treasurer an appointed position rather than an elected one.
Longtime town clerk Karen Richard endorsed the change, citing concerns about an elected official’s preparedness to do the technically demanding job and the legal challenges of removing a potentially ineffective clerk. The 65-year-old has held the post since 1998.
Voters defeated the same proposed charter change by a razor-thin 13-vote margin in 2014, but approved nine other proposed amendments on the ballot. When another suite of revisions was proposed for Town Meeting Day 2017, Richard suggested the board leave the clerk measure off the ticket entirely.
She agreed it was time to float the charter change again this Town Meeting Day, however, and confirmed she’s considering retiring in the near future during a December interview with the Sun.
Her replacement will now be picked by the town manager with the advice and consent of the selectboard, the same way other town department heads are hired.