by Doug McClure
HARDWICK – The Hardwick Select Board, or Selectboard as it might soon be known, held a public hearing last Thursday afternoon to present proposed changes to the town’s charter. The changes consist primarily of removing repealed sections and obsolescent occupations such as “fence viewers.” The board also took a half-measure of changing “selectmen” to “selectboard” in a process that, according to member Elizabeth Dow, “took several people several weeks,” but did not go the step further to eliminate the frequent use of gender-specific language such as “he or she.”
The issue that drew the ire of some was the change of the town clerk and treasurer from elected to appointed positions. An additional concern raised was that there had been little discussion about the process that a charter change requires.
One way Vermont is legally defined is by the Vermont Statutes, and of those statutes, each town’s charter is a chapter. Hardwick is Chapter 123. Any changes to a town charter voters approve must also be approved by the legislature, which in 2022 convenes on January 6 and, unless special circumstances intervene, adjourns May 21, 2022. The select board wanted to get the charter changes to the legislature when it opened instead of opting to wait until town meeting, which is closer to the end of the legislative session.
Resident and frequent public servant Orise Ainsworth felt the board could have been much more transparent about explaining that process and the timeline. Her main question, echoed by others, was about the change from electing a town clerk and town treasurer to the select board appointing them.
Ainsworth said “why do you think the five of you are better to select the town clerk and town treasurer than the hundreds of voters? In all of my years that I’ve been involved, since I was probably fifteen, going to town meeting, there’s never been an issue with electing a town clerk and town treasurer. We aren’t very city, we’re not Burlington, we don’t need a committee to do that for us. There’s not many people here, but I’ve talked to a few that are upset by it.”
Chair Eric Remick explained that if the board hired people for those positions, it would be a standard process comprising applications and interviews. If voters elect people, there is no such process. An additional factor is that if the positions are elected, then no one can run for those positions who is not a Hardwick resident and registered voter.
Elizabeth Dow said “if [Town Clerk] Alberta [Miller] were to retire, and [Assistant Town Clerk] Tonia [Gray] decided to pack up and go someplace else, then Hardwick is left with choosing from among its voters someone to do a highly legal, highly important, highly technical job with no experience.”
Board member Shari Cornish said “the job as town clerk has become highly specialized. There’s a lot of experience and information you need to know.” She cited one example being the New England Municipal Resource Center (NEMRC) computer system.
Ainsworth disagreed, saying “I think the electorate would figure out that candidate B is not qualified… taking this away from the voters with no forewarning… was a blow and an insult.” She added that if it was an appointed position, someone could apply for the job “coming in with an agenda.”
Town Manager David Upson bluntly said “I think democracy in the town is dying. There’s no participation of the public. Tonight, it’s an issue and people have shown up. There’s countless select board meetings where no one shows up. That’s sad. The fact [is] that we have elections that are unopposed, and it’s almost by default that someone puts their name on the ballot and they get elected. I think that’s what the board is trying to prevent from happening… that’s usually where the agendas come from is when someone runs [for office], not when someone applies for a job. They apply for a job because they want to do the job, not because they have an agenda.”
Ainsworth asked whether the charter changes would be voted on as a bloc, and Remick said “it’s not a la carte,” to which she replied “you might want to reconsider that.”
She stated that, based on feedback she had received, the entire charter change might be tanked by voters when the only aspect people disagreed with was the election or appointment of town clerk. Another resident proposed a hybrid approach in which people could still be elected but the select board would have to vet them for qualifications first. Miller, whose twentieth anniversary on the job was October 29, is investigating whether it is allowed to amend the warning to reflect that change.
A second public hearing on the topic is slated for November 18, at 5:30 p.m.