Town Meeting Sampler: Dispatchers, Mayoral Rights and Climate Change | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Town Meeting Sampler: Dispatchers, Mayoral Rights and Climate Change

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Every March for 30 years, longtime University of Vermont political science professor Frank Bryan and his students showed up at town meetings around the state to gather data. Over the decades, the prof and his acolytes tallied votes and comments from 60,000 residents at 1,500 meetings.

"There's no place in the world you could study democracy that would be better" than Town Meeting Day, Bryan declared in a 2013 interview with Richard Watts, director of the Center for Research on Vermont. Bryan retired that year.

Fast forward, and now Watts and about 50 students from three Vermont state colleges are picking up where Bryan left off.

They'll head out to school gyms and meeting halls with clipboards to observe the state's enduring tradition of government for the people, by the people — or, as Bryan put it, "ordinary people ... talking about things that are local, parochial, trucks and stuff like that."

Here are seven issues, both controversial and commonplace, that they — and you — might encounter on March 6.

Climate Control

350Vermont organizer Jaiel Pulskamp said she only expected a "handful of towns" to sign on when she started advocating for climate change proposals on local ballots.

Vermont is "lagging behind" in implementing initiatives that would help reduce greenhouse gases, Pulskamp lamented.

But 38 towns — of a possible 246 — responded to her call to action. Many of those will use a template provided by 350Vermont, part of the environmental advocacy group's effort to urge the state to meet its goal of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050.

If approved by voters, the ballot item would urge the state to halt future construction of fossil fuel pipelines and related infrastructure. It would also make each town promise to do its part to weatherize municipal buildings and, when possible, convert them to alternative energy sources.

Some towns are going even further. Marshfield, for instance, has included proposals on its ballot to introduce "alternatively fueled" school buses and public transportation, install solar panels at school buildings, and help residents reduce use of heating fuel.

Pulskamp said she hopes the effort will build momentum for environmental issues at the state and local levels. "I think people are really eager to have something done," she said.

No Ifs, Ands or Butts

Could Burlington's "yes" vote to increase the smoking age from 18 to 21 convince lawmakers in Montpelier that doing so would be a good idea?

That's what supporters of the measure are hoping. Last year, the Vermont House passed a bill to raise the legal smoking age, but it failed in the Senate.

The Burlington ballot question, which the city council approved by a 9-3 vote in December, asserts that a stricter age requirement will decrease teen cigarette smoking. Fifteen percent of Vermont college students use tobacco, compared with 9 percent nationwide, said Mariah Sanderson, who argued in favor of the initiative before the city council in her role as director of the Burlington Partnership for a Healthy Community.

Councilor Dave Hartnett (D-North District) was one of the council's three "no" votes. "We send them off to war; we send them off to college," Hartnett said of 18-year-olds. "They're at the point in their life they're making their own decisions."

Hartnett's vote had nothing to do with owning a convenience store that sells cigarettes, he said, though he acknowledged that the change would decrease sales. "It's never been a money-driven issue for me," he said.

Looking for Connection

Jeremy Hansen decided last year that he had had enough of the sluggish internet connection at his Berlin home. So the town selectboard vice chair and Norwich University computer science assistant professor took matters into his own hands.

Hansen has proposed setting up a "communications union district," called Central Vermont Internet, to bring fiber-optic connectivity to 13 towns: Barre City, Barre Town, Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Marshfield, Middlesex, Montpelier, Northfield, Plainfield, Roxbury, Williamstown and Worcester. Each municipality that votes "yes" will get a seat on the board, which will then figure out the logistics of installing affordable gigabit internet. Hansen based his vision on ECFiber, which operates in 24 Vermont towns.

Hansen figures the group can fund the venture with an average of six members per mile, at a rate of $66 per month. The district would eventually fund the build-out with a bond; construction would likely begin in 2020.

The entity would not rely on taxpayer dollars, and Hansen said he expects overwhelming support for the initiative. Even Gov. Phil Scott, a Berlin resident, voted in favor of considering the measure in a preliminary voice vote at last year's town meeting, according to Hansen.

"There's not really a downside," Hansen said.

Emergency Measures

A total of seven towns — Burlington, Colchester, Milton, Shelburne, South Burlington, Williston and Winooski — will vote on whether to create the Chittenden County Public Safety Authority, the first step toward a regional 911 dispatch center.

Proponents of the change argue that having the county's 44 dispatchers under one roof could shave up to 70 seconds off the response time.

"It's more efficient ... and it just makes a heck of a lot of sense," said Burlington Fire Chief Steve Locke, who's heading up the effort.

Burlington dispatchers oppose the change, saying their familiarity with streets and individuals helps police to quickly and appropriately respond to emergencies. They claim that a consolidated system won't save money and may not even save time. At a December meeting, Burlington dispatcher Alex Veronneau accused Locke and other organizers of being "disingenuous with data and statistics." 

The Chittenden County chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has distributed yard signs advocating for a "no" vote.

Some towns have been discussing a regional dispatch plan since 1967, according to Locke. Another proposal envisioned a unified center by the year 2000.

This attempt represents the concept's best chance, said Locke. After the vote, the assenting towns will still have to come together to work out the funding and staffing specifics of the plan.

"We're closer than we've ever been," he said.

Very Strong Mayor

A Bennington activist is leading a charge to dismantle the city's alleged "old boys' network" by adopting a mayoral form of government so strong that critics call it a dictatorship.

Mike Bethel envisions a mayor who can veto any selectboard decision, with no possibility of an override. The change would also leave Stuart Hurd, the town manager of 25 years, without a job.

"I would think it would be unprecedented," said Hurd, who is advocating for a "no" vote on the measure.

Hurd has served a variety of roles in Bennington town government for 45 years, including, since 1992, town manager. Having an elected mayor rather than a hired town manager would politicize town government, Hurd suggested, and create an "omnipotent individual" without the checks and balances necessary in government.

Even if the measure passes, a mayor likely wouldn't be in place until 2020, according to Bethel. The state legislature would need to approve a charter change and, next year, residents would vote on the specifics of the position, including term length and mayoral powers.

Bennington has voted down similar measures twice before, more recently 14 years ago, according to Bethel. But the change offers the town the chance to "live up to its potential" and progress economically, he said.

Third Time's a Charm?

The Mt. Abraham school board is hoping that persistence pays — $29.5 million, to be exact.

The school district, which includes students from Lincoln, Bristol, Monkton, Starksboro and New Haven, is asking voters — for a third time — to finance a major renovation to the middle and high school building in Bristol. The bond would buy better ventilation and more windows, expand the gym, and address accessibility deficiencies, according to superintendent Patrick Reen.

A $32.6 million bond for similar renovations failed in 2014 by a wide margin, while voters last November shot down a $35 million bond by fewer than 100 votes.

No upgrades have been made to the aging school since it was built in 1969, said Reen. A "yes" vote would increase property taxes by $68.40 per $100,000 of assessed value.

The project's cost rises 5 percent each year that the school district doesn't make the renovations, Reen said.

David Brynn, who has organized community discussions about the project, said he would prefer that the school complete the minimum upgrades needed, which he said would cost $12 million to $15 million. "It may not be primarily about the money," Brynn said. "It's about doing a better job of engaging the community in Mt. Abe."

If it fails again, the proposal will be back on the ballot in November, according to Reen. "There's widespread agreement that the building needs significant work," he said. "The question is, what's the will of the electorate to do the work, and when?"

Capital Turnover

The "guard" is changing in Montpelier. After six years in office, Mayor John Hollar has decided not to seek reelection. Anne Watson, a physics teacher and the current city council president, is running unopposed for the capital city's top job.

Seven candidates are running for three openings on the six-seat city council.

Watson, a councilor for seven years, said the new faces could help facilitate a shift toward sustainable development, including more affordable housing.

Residents are "more open to development than they've been in the recent past," she said, noting that the city is expecting a new hotel and "more housing projects planned than I can remember being planned in the last five years."

Among those throwing his hat in the ring for city council is Conor Casey, the executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party.

He's running, in part, to help the city navigate "an interesting transition period." Buildings are springing up, said Casey, who noted the planned transit and visitor center at 1 Taylor Street. As change happens, "it's important to keep the character of the city," he said.

The national political climate prompted Casey to take action locally. "Seeing the state that the country is in under this administration and Congress, I think it's time to put my money where my mouth is and be a candidate myself," he said.


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