Sunset amendment added to draft legislative charter

By Alex Bunten | The Charlotte News

Municipal budget could be hybrid of floor votes and Australian ballot by 2017

Approving the municipal budget is one of the biggest decisions the Town of Charlotte faces each year. At the Selectboard meetings of September 14 and 21, the discussion about how the town will vote was lively. 

The September 14 Selectboard meeting started with a serendipitous nod to greater town involvement and transparency as it was the first meeting that Vermont Community Access Media, or VCAM, filmed in Town Hall for public consumption. According to Community Programming Manager Elizabeth Rossano, the entire meeting was available both online and through cable by 4 p.m. on September 15. (VCAM was not present for the September 21 hearing.)

And it was an historic meeting to be filmed with the Town of Charlotte pushing forward with a legislative charter that would change a 253-year-old democratic process.

This charter is the result of 126 voters passing an advisory motion at the 2015 Town Meeting for the Selectboard to explore adopting a system that would make the approval of the municipal budget a two-part process. According to the current draft charter document, after the usual Town Meeting, with discussion, amendments and floor votes, if passed, the budget would not be effective until it was voted on by Australian ballot. The date of the Australian ballot vote would be at least 20 days after a posted warning. The Selectboard would not be permitted to change the budget in between the two votes and those who voted on the floor would have to cast their vote a second time.

A first in Vermont, this hybrid system attempts to both keep the teeth in Town Meeting but also open up the democratic process to the many who cannot attend the daytime proceedings for various reasons.

Other areas of Vermont host their town meetings at different times to be more inclusive—in the evening or on the weekend. This only changes the group of people attending according to Chairman Lane Morrison. It doesn’t increase the amount of people.

At the hearing on September 14, Selectboard Member Matt Krasnow called the charter an “experiment” and expressed concern that jiggling the foundations of a 253-year-old democratic process could have unintended consequences. As a result, he proposed a three-year sunset clause amendment wherein at the end of three years, an Australian ballot would be held to determine if the new system should be continued. Krasnow said the current system is “functional” and asked, “Do you want a charter for the first time and to irrevocably change the nature and power of direct democracy in perpetuity?”

Patrice Machavern, a Town Meeting Solutions Committee member disagreed with Krasnow’s amendment, saying at the September 21 hearing: “To call [this opportunity] an experiment and say we need to sunset it for that reason…If we go back in time over the past 253 years—the legislature didn’t call it an experiment when they modified and made an amendment to the constitution allowing men who were not land owners to vote. We didn’t have a sunset provision for that because that was an experiment. We didn’t have a sunset provision when women were provided an opportunity to vote.”

The semantics of the sunset clause were hotly debated at the September 21 hearing.

Lynne Jaunich, a member of TMSC, said, “it’s a matter of attitude,” preferring the clause to stay in effect unless challenged by the town. Whereas Krasnow supported a clause that would allow the new system to lapse unless re-affirmed by the town.

Valerie Graham, a TMSC member, expressed her concern about the charter in general and said at the September 14 meeting, “To me the danger is that if we don’t do something like this, that we’ve talked about and that the town has approved, somebody is going to come in with a petition that you cannot ignore, saying you are to vote—turn this to an Australian ballot. Town meeting is gone. So this is strictly a compromise. That we are toying with town government but we’re managing to keep Town Meeting, which to me is supremely important.”

After a long discussion at the September 14 meeting, Krasnow’s motion to explore language of a sunset clause was approved by a 3-2 vote. At the September 21 meeting, the Selectboard approved the sunset provision by a 4-0 vote. November 3 was set as the date for the special Australian ballot on the charter to be held in the CCS Multi-Purpose Room. October 26 will be the second hearing on the charter. The town is encouraged to attend.