John Hammer, Contributing editor
Last year, by a vote of 1,148 to 349, Charlotters passed Town Meeting Article 9, which established a municipal charter that alters the way the town budget is approved. Beginning this year, the following procedure is in place: Those in attendance at Town Meeting can still discuss and amend all warned budget and budget-related articles—including the Selectboard’s proposed budget. Final approval of those (amended) articles, however, will be decided by Australian ballot five weeks later on Tuesday, April 11.
The process for voting on all non-budgetary articles remains the same as before. Those articles will continue to be discussed, amended and voted up or down on the floor of Town Meeting, with no follow-on Australian ballot vote.
As it currently stands, Town Meeting this year will consider and decide 10 articles on the floor and two by Australian ballot (see sidebar). Only articles 5 and 6 are subject to the two-part approval process described in the charter. The dollar amounts in each of these articles will be discussed, possibly modified and then approved on the floor. The final figures approved on the floor will then be voted for adoption by Australian ballot on April 11.
If, however, either Article 5 or Article 6 is defeated by a floor vote at Town Meeting—that is, if no Selectboard budget or no additional money for the Trails Reserve Fund is approved—the floor vote will be final and the defeated article will not appear on the April 11 ballot.
It is important to note that bonding and borrowing articles, such as Article 12 on this year’s warning to replace the aging 1980 fire pumper, will continue to be considered under the former procedures
How we got here
The genesis of the town charter was the failure, on the floor of a Special Town Meeting in May 2012, to pass an article calling for “the Town (to) adopt its budget article, or articles, by Australian ballot.” The article was “postponed indefinitely” in order to allow for alternative solutions to be considered.
In the intervening years, an ad hoc Town Meeting Solutions Committee studied potential alternatives and worked with the Selectboard to come up finally with the above-mentioned Article 9. In the view of the committee, this two-part process happily married the direct democracy of Town Meeting and the greater voter participation of the Australian ballot in determining the tax burden all of us will carry to fund town operations.
Included in the charter, as approved by the Vermont State Legislature on April 19, 2016, is a “sunset” clause that states, “Absent action to repeal or modify this Section 7, this charter shall expire, terminate and have no further force and effect four years from the date of passage by the Legislature.”
We now have four years to see if this two-part procedure works. If by Town Meeting 2020 we decide that it has worked and we want to continue it, we have to affirmatively renew the provisions of the charter that year—and do so by Australian ballot. Otherwise, the charter will sunset and we will return to traditional Town Meeting, voting town budget articles up or down on the floor.