Commentary: Make haste slowly before changing to a town manager

Robert Frost was a farming Vermonter, and one of our country’s best known and beloved poets. From his pen flowed images of the goodness and simplicity of our small state many decades ago. My favorite Frost poem is “The Road Not Taken.”

“Two roads diverg’d in a yellow wood and sorry I could not travel both.” Picture us now, our town, at the start of those roads. And add “huge and unknown change” to the picture.

Right now, however, our small town hosts, well, not a debate but a clumsy argument — and sometimes a sly one — about that change and our path to a strong future. Robert Frost would not have stopped here.

An ad hoc group has gathered to push us, no questions asked, into the arms of a town manager. Any town manager. I used the word “sly” because the self-appointed town manager group commenced their “putsch” for a new town government, i.e., a town manager, by doing an end run around the town’s elected government, our selectboard.

The ad hoc group went out and gathered 200 petition signatures to jump start the formal town process to hire a manager. And one ad hoc member freely admitted that some of those signing may not have understood what they were signing. Sly? Yes. And once the selectboard was brought in, they, the board, were at times told the petition might be turned in to start the process if the selectpersons didn’t act in a timely way. Bluntly put, the board was threatened.

A town manager form of government is laid out at great length in our Vermont Statutes Annotated, Title 24, Ch.37. The description is long, and if there’s one major point to wring out of it, it’s that moving to a town manager system will be a fundamental change in Charlotte’s town government. Yes, we will still elect women and men to our selectboard but, and it’s almost funny, the movers for change want the selectboard to go off and meditate on policy, abandoning what the board does now to serve its citizens.

I have this image of five selectboard members up on Mt. Philo talking policy and swatting mosquitoes.

Here’s an example of what our town government does so well for our people; some would call it “stuff.” I call it small-town Vermont.

Some weeks ago, I attended a selectboard meeting. On the action agenda was a couple with a problem. They own a home near the town beach and picnic areas, and those areas often host large party gatherings that overflow to the neighbors’ property. Needing help, they brought the problem to the selectboard. I was stunned, pleasantly so, at the patience and courtesy of the chair and board shown to these Charlotte citizens. Who will handle our citizens’ problems if the selectboard’s new job is to go off and think about policy?

An event like this happened to the Delaneys, new arrivals in town many years ago. My reaction was: This is where I want to live.

Should the ad hoc group succeed in hiring a town manager our town government will be dancing on two left feet. We’ll fall behind good government. Why? Governance.

Countries across the world with democratic aspirations are welcoming the participation, the engagement of their citizens. More and more citizenry involved. Less reliance on leaders, even democratically elected ones. Maybe town managers less necessary?

At this point in time, we Charlotters, all of us, should do the unthinkable. We should, as friends and neighbors, talk to one another about the looming changes. And take our time. As the Italians like to say: Festina lente. Make haste slowly.

(Dennis Delaney of Charlotte is a former Republican state senator.)