Voters to consider charter changes

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After weighing the merits of two budgets and eight candidates, voters will be asked to consider several amendments to Colchester’s charter this Town Meeting Day.

Broken into several items, the changes include removing the grand juror as an elected position, requiring the online publication of selectboard policies, changing the threshold for emergency appropriations from 2 to 4 percent and adding statutory language to the appointment of the town manager.

Residents will also decide whether to add language to the powers and duties of the town manager, including updating the procedure for the manager’s removal, with cause. Clarifying language regarding budget timing and ethical conduct will also be proposed.

The ballot items also add three new sections: requiring multi-year capital budgets through voter-approved capital plans, adopting and periodically reviewing a conflict of interest policy and reviewing the charter itself every five years.

A governance committee, including David Usher, Bud Meyers, Curt Taylor and Mickey Palmer, reviewed the charter and recommended this year’s suite of changes.

Many towns do not have charters, town manager Dawn Francis noted. The document, which must be approved by the state legislature, functions as a “constitution” and gives towns more authority over certain aspects of governing.

This is the third round of amendments to Colchester’s charter, which was enacted in 1969. The first update came in 2014 and changed arcane language like “selectman” to more gender-neutral terms. In 2015, voters approved adding the local option tax.

The 2014 ballot also asked residents to allow the town clerk to function as an appointed position, rather than an elected office. The measure failed by 13 votes and will not appear again this Town Meeting Day.

“Voters said no,” Francis said. “We didn’t want to revisit it too soon.”

Still, she said she hopes to offer the amendment again in the future. Longtime town clerk Karen Richard is nearing retirement, Francis noted, and said she wants to be sure a qualified clerk replaces her.

Francis called some of the charter updates “no brainers.” Most selectboard policies are already published online, for example. And the ethical conduct policy is already in place for town employees and would simply extend to the elected and appointed positions, Francis said.

“We’re ahead of the curve,” Francis said. “I know the state is having a big debate about ethics right now.”

Others, like changing the emergency appropriations threshold, may prove more controversial. The item doubles the amount of money the town can spend in an emergency without a public vote, moving from $250,000 to $500,000.

It was the subject of a lengthy discussion at a selectboard meeting last month, with several members saying they worried about the implications of increased spending power without public input.

Francis said she understood the concern but is confident the change is necessary.

“This community is very conservative in terms of allowing the selectboard or staff to have authority to spend money,” Francis said. “But I think we’ve addressed those concerns.”

As it stands, town officials would have to warn a special town meeting after a local emergency to spend more than $250,000. That voting process would take a couple months, Francis said, and could leave residents waiting for necessary aid.

She pointed to the washed out dip near Smith Estates on Lakeshore Drive and the Morehouse Brook culvert project, the latter completed this summer after a sinkhole all but swallowed a pickup truck.

“Had that been worse, we would have needed an appropriation to go in and fix it,” Francis said, noting emergencies would be even harder to address within the set budget at the end of a fiscal year.

Discussing one update, the removal of the town manager, was slightly awkward for Francis. The amendment requires a manager to be removed by a “majority of the entire selectboard” after finding “cause for removal” – defined in case law as “some substantial shortcoming detrimental to the employer’s interests.”

“It’s trying to be more advisory,” Francis said. “A selectboard member, should they be considering getting rid of a town manager, can look to the charter for guidance and not put the town at risk.”

Francis said she plans to ask a selectboard member to present the update at Town Meeting, rather than explaining it to voters herself.

The annual pre-Town Meeting will take place on Monday, March 6 at 7 p.m. Voting by Australian ballot will be held on Tuesday, March 7 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Colchester High School. For a complete list of the proposed amendments to the town charter, visit colchestervt.gov.