Commentary: Town manager petition not threat, but tool to involve voters

In his commentary in the Aug.10 issue of The Charlotte News, Dennis Delaney opined about Robert Frost and images of “the goodness and simplicity of our small state decades ago.”

Well, yes, it was decades ago and life and living in Vermont, or anywhere else for that matter, is far more complex today. Delaney described the change to a town manager as “huge and unknown” and stated the discussions of such a change since March as “a clumsy argument — and sometimes a sly one — about that change and our path to a strong future.”

Delaney also claimed the selectboard was “threatened” with the petition and went on to say, “Countries across the world with democratic aspirations are welcoming the participation, the engagement of their citizens. More and more citizenry involved.”

The petition for a town manager is exactly that, getting the citizenry involved in moving Charlotte forward: better prepared to plan and engage change, rather than be driven by it.

It is hardly a threat, rather a tool, available under state statute to challenge and initiate change by the voters. The working group of which I am a part, provided a great deal of documentation to the selectboard, including pros and cons of such a change, state statute outlines of a town manager and administrator, and experiences of other towns.

Additionally, the selectboard contracted with Lee Krohn, former Shelburne town manager, to provide further information about the potential change. Krohn’s report included outlines of the administrator and manager positions, the pros and cons of a manager, a review of similar towns as to whether they have administrators or managers (the majority have managers) and other options the town might consider.

Whether the proposed change to a town manager is a huge issue in Charlotte is unknown. Front Porch Forum, often a barometer of hot-button issues in town, has had no posts on the subject that I have seen, nor have there been any letters to the editor in The Charlotte News. Public participation at numerous selectboard meetings has been very light. It may follow the path of other issues put before the town for a vote — sometimes voters are engaged, sometimes not.

At the Aug. 14 selectboard meeting, after a brief recap of the ongoing discussions since March about a potential change from a town administrator to a town manager, chair Jim Faulkner requested a straw poll of the selectboard regarding the proposed change. The vote was unanimous: Jim Faulkner, Frank Tenney, Lewis Mudge and Louise McCarren (Kelly Devine was absent) were against the change.

McCarren asked, “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?”

I suggest the “problem we’re trying to solve” is enabling the selectboard to focus on policy and the future rather than being hamstrung by day-to-day issues.

For example, Chapter One of the Charlotte Town Plan is titled “Charlotte Tomorrow” and concludes with an implementation table of approximately 54 actionable strategies to reach the stated goals of the chapter, which is all about the future. Of these, one is marked complete and 18 marked “ongoing.” The balance have completion dates that have come and gone.

Approximately 34 of these strategies (some large, some small) are the responsibility of the selectboard, or they share it with another entity (planning commission, conservation committee, energy committee, etc.)

In addition to the above action items, there are significant challenges and decisions for the selectboard to consider:

  • Lack of growth and vitality in the east and west villages
  • Continued development of the rural areas
  • Lack of housing, particularly for those of moderate and lower income
  • Increasing budgetary challenges
  • Town garage and the potential for a future highway department.
  • Governance over the Charlotte Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department — yes or no
  • Public safety — speeding challenges in numerous areas; increases of issues at the beach.
  • Protecting areas of high public value, particularly farm land, as outlined in the town plan and land-use regulations.

    A major upcoming planning project will address some of these issues and begins in September. Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission’s Unified Planning Work Program will work with the Charlotte Planning Commission, and the town at large, to develope a plan for the future of the village districts over the next two or more years. Significant outreach and engagement in the community as well as support and input from the selectboard; planning commission; development review board; and conservation, energy and recreation committees should result in amendments to the land-use regulations and town plan.

    Prior to the recently enacted Act 47 (S100), amendments to the town plan and land-use regulations required a town vote. Act 47 now enables the selectboard, at their discretion, to vote on amendments or put them to the town for a vote. This empowers the selectboard with greater authority to enact change.

    For example, the proposed amendments to the land-use regulations regarding cannabis cultivation, revised after public hearings held by the planning commission and selectboard, could have been voted on by the selectboard. They opted to put it to the town for a vote.

    The items outlined above, changes in Act 47 providing the selectboard with greater decision-making power and the upcoming Unified Planning Work Program project, in my opinion, speak to the need for a town manager in order to provide the selectboard the bandwidth to address these major policy issues in a timely manner.

    No one that I have spoken to who is in favor of changing to a town manager believes it is a silver bullet or will be without challenges and adjustments. But I do believe it will be an improved form of governance moving forward.

    Dennis Delaney envisions five selectboard members on Mt. Philo talking policy, swatting mosquitoes. I envision them making decisions on policy and the future.

    As of this reading, the petition, signed by approximately 200 Charlotters, will have been submitted Monday, Aug. 21. The petition requires a town vote on Town Meeting Day.

    Voters have until then to contemplate whether they think an administrator or manager is best for Charlotte. I believe it to be the latter.