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Power to the people? Brattleboro voters want more say in local government

larry bloch
Larry Bloch is a member of the Brattleboro Democracy Campaign and is also the owner and proprietor of Save the Corporations. photo by Christian Avard

By Christian Avard | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted September 29, 2006

BRATTLEBORO — A grassroots effort hopes to change Brattleboro’s governing document, something that hasn’t happened in more than 20 years.

A group of citizens believes the town’s current charter limits the power citizens have when it comes to making town decisions.

The group has launched the Brattleboro Democracy Campaign in, what they claim, is an effort to restore local democracy in their community.

“Some were frustrated that the Selectboard didn’t act two years ago to put a moratorium on big box store development when they had the opportunity to do so,” said Larry Bloch of the Brattleboro Democracy Campaign. “The development review board also told us they felt powerless to do anything as well. So some residents with the idea that ‘wow, if we had a little more ability to decide for ourselves what it is that we wanted and what it is that we didn’t want, we could act and let the people decide.”’

The Brattleboro Democracy Campaign wants to add a clause to the town charter that would give residents the authority to petition for changes in the town plan, zoning, and subdivision bylaws.

Residents would be required to collect signatures from 10 percent of the town’s registered voters in order to make changes appear on a ballot.

The group got the required number of signatures; Bloch took it to the Selectboard. The board gave him — and the group — the go-ahead to be on the Nov. 7 ballot.

But after the Selectboard gave it the go-ahead, some critics contended that the right to change the charter already existed.

In 1985, a charter revision committee met and agreed that local people should have more power. So they added a clause that allowed residents, with signatures from 20 percent of registered voters, to petition for a new or revised ordinance.

“There are two ways to amend the charter. One is by the statute and the other is by the charter. They’ve picked the less onerous route that says it can be done with [10] percent,” said Dart Everett, who served as vice chairman of the charter committee in 1985. “Back then, we decided that we elect Selectboard members and school board members to run the town and school district. And for the citizenry to overstep their bounds and take things into their own hands should require a pretty strong effort on their part. Therefore, we said it should have been 20 percent of the voters that petition.”

Bloch thinks that number is unrealistic.

“That’s too high of a threshold when you consider that 20 percent is sort of an average number of voters that come out to vote in any election. Now we’re talking about not 10 percent to pass the by-law, but just to get the issue in front of the voters. So it seems an unrealistically high number to try to get over 1,800 registered voters to just put something in front of the voters when you rarely get 1,800 people voting for any one thing in town.”

The only other town that requires as much as 10 percent of voter signatures to propose a town charter is Barre Town. Although Barre has not dealt with significant proposals to amend their charter, the town clerk contends it’s not hard for anyone to obtain signatures from 10 percent of the registered voters.

“Years ago, 10 percent would’ve meant 20, 30, maybe 40 voters in the town. But as the proportion of numbers get bigger, 10 percent now would only mean 556 voter signatures. So it’s still not significant,” said Donna Kelty, Barre Town Clerk.

Everett believes the same. “You’ve been in Brattleboro? How many people stand in front of the post office? It would not be difficult to get 800 signatures. We say it should be 1,600 or 20 percent. After all, it’s a pretty drastic thing for citizens to take laws into their own hands.”

Bloch contends that the group is not taking the law into their own hands but simply asking voters to determine if they think a 10 percent threshold is sufficient for getting a measure on the ballot. “When we read our charter, we came across the same language. In the section entitled ‘Powers of the People’ there is a paragraph there that says: ‘Petition for inclusion in the warning of an article to adopt an ordinance.’ Now we consulted with an expert charter attorney and he said that his legal opinion is ‘a zoning by-law is not the same as an ordinance.”

Everett disagrees. “They are called zoning bylaws but they are also called zoning ordinances. They are one in the same. They’re nitpicking incorrectly.”

If the referendum is passed, it will next go to the Legislature for final approval. Whether or not Brattleboro passes the referendum, Bloch remains optimistic that this will ultimately develop a healthy and engaging local polity.

“What we hope to accomplish is realigning the conversation about democracy on the local level and how it is a democracy that requires participation of people. It’s not a democracy if people sit back and let it happen. One way of empowering folks is to bring them more into the process of making decisions for themselves and this one of those ways of doing that,” said Bloch.

“At the local level we still have the greatest chance to influence and make decisions at the local level that can impact not just in our community but as more and more communities act locally it’s going to have an impact ... statewide, regionally, and nationally.”