Many Select Boards Decline To Put Voter Initiatives On Town Ballots

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(Host) Vermonters often like to put non-binding questions on their town ballots that aren’t directly related to town business.

Sometimes, towns refuse. Last spring, Brattleboro’s select board declined to put a Vermont Yankee question on the ballot and the town lost in court when it was challenged.

As VPR’s Susan Keese reports, that case has prompted a new debate about the rights of voters.

(Keese) The Brattleboro case was initiated last winter by a group called Eminent Domain over Vermont Yankee.

The group gathered the required five percent of voter signatures for a non-binding question: should the legislature look into seizing the nuclear plant by eminent domain to force it to close and pay all cleanup costs?

The Brattleboro board voted not to include the question on the town meeting warning last spring. But Superior Court Judge John Wesley ordered that the question be put on the ballot. The select board decided it should be voted on in November.

Lawyer Paul Gillies represented the group. He says the Brattleboro town charter is unique because it’s the only town in the state with a "representative" style of government.

(Gillies) "My assumption has always been … that because you have a representative town meeting there, meaning you have people who are elected to serve as neighborhood representatives to vote what is normally voted by the entire town, that there was a… counterbalance which was put into the charter."

(Keese) The Brattleboro charter requires officials to bring to a vote any properly presented petition that’s advisory and meant to reflect public sentiment only.

Gillies said the general state law – which applies in most of Vermont – says the governing body can choose what goes on the ballot and what doesn’t.  Gillies sees that as a weakness.

(Gillies) "In Vermont we pride ourselves on direct democracy, but we don’t allow enough opportunities for it. I think government that’s closed, that doesn’t allow power sharing… is doomed."

(Keese) But Stephen Jeffrey of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns says town meeting democracy provides a forum for citizens to make decisions about issues that affect them, like roads and taxes and education.

(Jeffrey) "Once you get into this area of how do people feel about stuff and you allow for petitioning …. that isn’t business proper before the town… where do you stop?"

(Keese) Jeffrey says town boards and city councils do have the option of including non-binding questions, even if they deal with issues over which the town has no control.

He says decisions by the Vermont Supreme Court have reaffirmed the rights of elected select boards and city councils to make those decisions.

The town of Brattleboro, meanwhile, is in the midst of a charter revision.

And one of the debates currently under way is whether to remove the requirement to include non-binding questions – or whether to require any citizen request, backed by five percent of voters, to be brought before the public.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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