Push for vote on town manager switch hits major snag

Another meeting about the issue of Charlotte changing to a town manager form of government and still no decision.

A town vote on whether residents want to make the switch to a town manager appeared inevitable before a special meeting of the selectboard on Tuesday, July 18.

With a group spearheaded by former selectboard chair Lane Morrison having a petition with enough signatures to require a town vote on changing from a town administrator to a town manager, it had seemed the only question was whether the selectboard would call for a vote or if the petition would require it.

But then a wrench got thrown into the proceedings. (More on this later.)

The primary reason for the special meeting had been to hear the results of research Lee Krohn had done about the pluses and minuses of a town manager versus a town administrator.

Krohn, a Charlotte resident who has recently retired as Shelburne town manager, presented the results of his survey of how well the two different types of municipal government have worked in different Vermont towns. The town hired Krohn as a consultant to do this study.

His summary of his research included much of the same positives and negatives shared at selectboard meetings since late March, when Morrison and others who supported a change to town manger first came to a selectboard meeting about their petition. For example, Krohn repeated the refrain that some responsibilities might be more effectively handled by a manager, allowing the selectboard “to focus on the bigger picture.”

On the other hand, he said, “If we went to a town manager form of government, would we start to lose the small town feel that is cherished here? Would the selectboard start to lose touch with the electorate or would the residents start to feel like they’re losing touch with the selectboard?”

As expected, he found that larger cities and towns have managers.

But looking at two dozen random towns around the state with roughly comparable population size to Charlotte, Krohn said, “There’s no clear pattern of whether towns under a certain size or over a certain size inherently or automatically have an administrator or a manager.”

He did not find an inherent reason why the towns similar in size to Charlotte chose either a town manager or a town administrator, but most small towns had managers.

“Those are purely local decisions,” he said.

Vermont operates under what is known as Dillon’s Rule which means that towns only have those powers specifically delegated to them by state law.

Vermont statute does define the responsibilities of a town manager, he said, and it’s a couple of pages long.

“It also defines responsibilities of the selectboard which interestingly is only a couple of paragraphs,” Krohn said. But, there’s no state statute defining the responsibilities granted to town administrators.

“A statute lays out: Here are the things the town manager is tasked to do,” he said. “The town administrator is a rolling target depending on how the selectboard decides.”

According to state statute, a town manager has clear authority to manage town personnel, but each town’s selectboard decides how much authority a town administrator has in personnel management.

However, the town manager does not have direct managerial oversight over other elected officials, such as the town clerk or the town treasurer in Charlotte.

Bristol has a strong town administrator who has been delegated a lot of authority and that seems to be working there.

Before switching to a town manager, Hinesburg tried to have a strong town administrator, delegating a lot of authority over personnel “but when there was a conflict of some sort, it turned out the personnel would do an end run around the administrator and come to a selectboard member.”

Krohn’s conclusion is that, whatever form of municipal government a town has, the most important factor in effective town functioning is trust between town officials.

Now here’s the wrench that was promised earlier: “It’s very clear, and we confirmed this with the town attorney, that if you change to a town manager, the town manager effectively becomes the road commissioner,” Krohn said.

The road commissioner is an elected position in Charlotte. This isn’t true in all towns. In Hinesburg roads are overseen by a town highway department managed by a highway foreman who is hired by the town and not elected. The town has bought and owns all the highway department trucks.

The notion of relegating road commissioner Junior Lewis to some sort of assistant road oversight role was clearly unimaginable to everyone at the selectboard meeting. Besides being road commissioner, Lewis is also a private contractor, who owns his trucks.

Krohn said the town could pass a charter that superseded this portion of state statutes and retain the road commissioner in Charlotte.

After a charter is approved by town voters, it must be approved by the state legislature. That could take a year.

This statute was a surprise to Morrison — if not everyone else at the meeting.

Before the meeting, Morrison had said his group would wait to submit its petition until the middle of August to give the selectboard time to come to a decision. According to state statute, a town vote on switching to a town manager is required 30 days after a petition is submitted.

With current town administrator Dean Bloch leaving at the end of October, the group wanted to have residents vote on the switch to a town manager before then, so Morrison was foreseeing a town vote in September — whether it was called by the selectboard or by his petition.

After the selectboard meeting on Wednesday, Morrison said that Lewis is the most popular elected official in town. He doesn’t think Lewis would want to work for someone else.

If the town voted to switch to a town manager, Lewis would not be the road commissioner until a charter keeping a road commissioner in Charlotte was approved by the legislature, Morrison said.

The selectboard decided to have another discussion on Aug. 14 about whether it will call for a town vote on switching to a town manager.