Municipal Land

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Municipal Land

Posted by Karen Horn on 29 December 2015

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Over here in Municipal Land, the 2016 legislative session is being anticipated with a vacillating mix of optimism, caution, and dread.

  • Optimism: Almost everyone who is running for an elected office is poised to listen to their constituents’ issues. What will they promise to the citizens of the cities and towns who elect them? A new session, even with pending fiscal deficits statewide, is always fraught with new possibilities.
  • Caution: Once promised, what is the likelihood that those promises will turn into reality in the next biennium?
  • Dread: Vermont is facing another budget deficit. What does that mean for municipal priorities or for funding the tremendously expensive mandates that were adopted in the last two years? How much of that financial burden will be left on municipal doorsteps?

The one thing that the legislature could provide to cities and towns that would not cost anything and might even save the state significant money can be summed up in one word: authority. Cities and towns – both in Vermont and around the country – are laboratories of twenty-first century innovation. Municipal officials can move nimbly to address issues such as climate change, energy independence, public safety and human services collaboration, stormwater management, governing structure, billing, and much more when they are accorded the freedom to do so.

In Vermont, 52 cities and towns have adopted and legislatively approved governance charters that establish laws at the local level that are in addition to or different from the general laws of the state. These municipalities – Barre City, Barre Town, Bennington, Berlin, Bradford, Brattleboro, Bristol, Burlington, Cavendish, Chester, Colchester, Danville, East Montpelier, Enosburgh, Essex, Franklin, Hardwick, Hartford, Jamaica, Jericho, Middlebury, Milton, Montpelier, Newport City, Northfield, Panton, Plainfield, Poultney Readsboro, Richford, Richmond, Royalton, Rutland City, St. Albans City, St. Albans Town, Salisbury, Shelburne, South Burlington, Springfield, St. Johnsbury, Stowe, Underhill, Vergennes, Waitsfield, West Fairlee, Westford, Westminister, Weybridge, Williamstown, Williston, Windsor, Winooski, and Woodford – contain 53 percent of Vermont’s population. Additionally, 25 incorporated villages have governance: Alburgh, Bellows Falls, Cambridge, Derby Center, Derby Line, Enosburg Falls, Essex Junction, Hyde Park, Jacksonville, Ludlow, Lyndonville, Manchester, Morrisville, Newbury, Newfane, North Bennington, Northfield, North Troy, Orleans, Poultney, Swanton, Waterbury, Wells River, Westminster, and Woodstock.

Charter communities have voted changes and then sought legislative approval to alter the size of local boards and commissions; to appoint treasurers, and clerks; to eliminate arcane or obsolete offices; to establish inter-local agreements; to enact local option taxes, conflict of interest policies, and recall provisions; and to alter the percentage of total municipal voters necessary for reconsideration of local ballot items. In recent years, quite a few municipalities have adopted governance charters for the first time because that is the only mechanism available to local officials who determine that there are more efficient and innovative ways to deliver services than those dictated by state statutes.

Legislators could – and should – institutionalize those innovations. They could enact a statute that ensures that a governance provision accorded to one municipality in a locally voted and legislatively approved charter change would thereafter be automatically available to any other municipality in which voters approve substantially the same provision. This is but one proposal to expand the authority of local governments to govern themselves with voter approval. There may be others.

In this upcoming session, we urge you to ask your legislators: Will you vote to increase the authority of cities and towns to govern themselves?