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Thetford Votes for Vote on Town Manager



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, October 04, 2018

Thetford — Despite concerns by some about lack of deliberations, residents have voted to hold an Australian ballot vote at next month’s midterm election on whether to authorize the Selectboard to employ a town manager.

All but eight of 103 attendees voted “yes” via floor vote at a Special Town Meeting in the Thetford Elementary School gymnasium on Wednesday night, even after several expressed frustrations that Town Meeting-style discussion would not be held before the vote.

That was because of rules described in Robert’s Rules of Order, a parliamentary procedural manual adopted at all town meetings in Vermont by state law, town officials said.

Instead of addressing what it could mean for residents to adopt a town-manager form of government on Wednesday, those discussions have been happening on Monday nights at the town’s weekly Selectboard meetings, as well as at a public forum in June presented by members of a Town Manager Committee. That committee was appointed by the Selectboard last spring to study the viability of a town manager.

“There are some things I’d like to know about before I decide whether this question should be on a ballot or not,” said Cathy Newbury, of East Thetford, during the open-floor portion of the meeting. “There was only one meeting previously that I’m aware of, and a lot of people, including myself, were traveling at the time. I don’t think we should be having this vote now without an information meeting. I think it’s problematic.”

Marshia Groszek said she wasn’t comfortable voting unless she was assured there would be “Town Meeting-style debate” prior to any vote that could authorize the hiring of a town manager.

Selectboard chairman Stuart Rogers responded that, as required by state statute, there would be at least one informational hearing about what would appear on the ballot prior to the Nov. 6 election where the question would appear.

One resident asked if it might be possible to place the Special Town Meeting into recess in order to hold an information meeting, and then re-enter Special Town Meeting, which drew laughs. When the chuckles settled, first-year Town Moderator Sarah Martel suggested entering recess merely to discuss that possibility with the Selectboard, but several others subsequently spoke in favor of holding the floor vote as scheduled.

It was eventually motioned and seconded and, unofficially, 95 of the 103 present voted to introduce the town manager ballot question.

Selectboard members for years have discussed exploring a town-manager form of government to help streamline processes such as road condition complaints, matters pertaining to the town’s unionized police force and other routine concerns, allowing the board instead to focus more on strategic planning and policy development.

Appointed in April, the Town Manager Committee interviewed personnel from similarly sized Vermont towns that had a town manager and submitted its findings to the Selectboard in July.

In those findings, each town — including Windsor, Norwich and other Upper Valley communities — still supported the town manager form of government. The committee also found that such a hire could cost anywhere from $88,620-$198,580, depending on additional hires that often accompany town managers, such as financial officers and municipal assistants. It all could amount to tax increases of $54 to $116 on a property with a $200,000 assessed value, according to the committee’s findings.

The floor reopened after the vote, prompting some of the deliberations residents had hoped for earlier. Melissa Krzal, of East Thetford, suggested that a committee consult with other towns that don’t have a town manager to see how their Selectboards operate.

“How do other towns that don’t have one make things more streamlined?” said Krzal, whose husband, Rich Krzal, is a selectman. “Why not talk to the other side, too?”

Rogers responded that he believes Thetford is one of only two towns in Vermont that has a full-time police department with a Selectboard as its lone governing body.

Another concern was the potential for municipal power struggles once a town manager arrives. Former Selectboard chair Tig Tillinghast said that judging from his experience observing and speaking with administrators in other communities, it can take two or three town managers to come in and leave — sometimes acrimoniously — before a new normal course of business settles in.

“A lot of towns try to do it halfway,” Tillinghast said. “If we’re going to do this, we should go all in and be sure we have the right structure in place.”

East Thetford resident Mike Kiess, who is the town’s energy committee chairman and was a member of the Town Manager Committee, said a town manager could go a long way toward helping other town personnel delve into pressing trends affecting Thetford.

“There is a state goal to get to 90 percent renewable energy by 2050, and we’re not on track to get there,” Kiess said. “There is a major housing shortage in the region, and we haven’t been making sufficient progress on that. Taxes and school costs are on the rise, and it’s rising higher than the rate of people’s incomes. Under our current structure, where we are now, we’re just not able to (sufficiently) address some of these big trends.”

The ballot vote will accompany midterm elections on Nov. 6.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.