Town shies away from controversial charter changes

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Town Clerk Karen Richard believes voters should reconsider whether her position should be elected or appointed before she retires. (Photo by Jason Starr)

Town Clerk Karen Richard believes voters should reconsider whether her position should be elected or appointed before she retires. (Photo by Jason Starr)

Colchester town clerk Karen Richard recommends a suite of changes to the town charter, backed by a 2015 report from a selectboard-appointed study committee. But she’s leaving out the committee’s thorniest proposals.

Richard presented draft charter language to the selectboard Tuesday. The board will consider whether to place the changes on the Town Meeting Day ballot for voter approval in March.

Voters approved nine of 11 changes the committee recommended in 2014.

Richard recommended rolling all nine new change proposals into one ballot question instead of presenting each change in individual questions, as was the setup two years ago.

Left out of the current package is a question voters narrowly defeated in 2014: whether to make the town clerk/treasurer an appointed position rather than elected. The study committee strongly recommended making the change to avoid voters electing an unqualified person to lead local elections and town accounting.

“The consequences of having a town clerk that is not up to the job would be catastrophic to the town,” committee member Mickey Palmer told the selectboard last year. “You cannot vet an elected official. Anyone who can get enough votes currently can be the town clerk. As an appointed employee, you can do a thorough vetting.”

Voters defeated the change by a 13-vote margin two years ago.

Richard, who is nearing retirement, endorses the change but believes the public is not ready to reconsider it yet. She recommends waiting until Town Meeting Day 2018.

“Let’s give it a rest,” she said. “I promoted it before, and I’ll promote it again. I’ll be closer to retirement then, and it will be more imminent.”

The other controversial issue on which the committee urged action is creating selectboard policy around plowing private roads and removing vague snow-plowing language in the charter. Currently the town takes responsibility for some private roads but not others.

“The practice of plowing some private roads and not others raises equity issues,” the committee wrote in its 2015 report. “The issue of equity is further complicated by the apparent lack of criteria to allow the plowing of some private roads and not others.”

“It will be addressed at some point,” said Richard, who recommends the selectboard “stay away from the controversial [changes] for now.”

The charter changes recommended for the March ballot include:

  • giving the town manager authority to transfer unencumbered funds between departments with written notice to the selectboard;
  • removing grand juror as an elected officer;
  • requiring the town to have a periodically reviewed ethics/conflict of interest policy for all employees and elected and appointed officials. The town has such a policy in its employee handbook, according to town manager Dawn Francis;
  • authorizing the use of 4 percent of the town’s annual budget for emergencies, doubling the current allowance of 2 percent;
  • codifying the current practice of voting on annual town budgets by ballot instead of in a live town meeting;
  • requiring all selectboard-approved policies be published on the town’s website;
  • instituting an annual performance review for the town manager and requiring any dismissals be done with cause; and
  • requiring the charter be reviewed every five years.