Help fix the town charter

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Benningtonians, another golden opportunity to be the change you want to see in the world has presented itself to you. A committee is being formed, which you can join, that will take a look at the fundamental rules governing the town and offer suggestions on how to change them.

It was announced last week that the Select Board is seeking applicants for the Charter Review Committee. The town charter is a bit like the town's constitution. It outlines everything from our current form of government to the size of the downtown district. The online application can be found on the town's website at http://bit.ly/2pOzGL0

The deadline to apply is May 22.

Once the committee is selected, it will have until early November to present its findings to the board. The board then picks which recommendations it will pursue. Two public hearings on the proposed changes must be held, then voters must approve the changes at Town Meeting. After that, the state Legislature must give its approval.

That's a pretty tight timeline but it's good that it's happening now when the community is about to take back control of its economic future with the Putnam Block Project.

Given that the town charter covers everything from recalling elected officials to solid waste management, the Charter Review Committee could have quite a bit of work to do. One thing it may discuss is a local option sales tax. This would let the town place a 1 percent tax on things like sales, meals, rooms, and alcohol.

According to the Vermont Department of Taxes, a number of towns use local option taxes. Our neighbors Wilmington and Manchester use them, as do towns like Burlington, Colchester, and Rutland. Imposing one in Bennington would require a change to the charter.

The idea has been mulled over in the past. On the one hand, it's a relatively small tax that primarily affects tourists. It would raise funds the town could use on infrastructure and economic development. On the other hand, it is a tax. Selling it to the people of Bennington as a good thing might be tough. Taxes, especially education property taxes, are high enough as it is.

Another issue that some in the community keep bringing up is that of Bennington having a mayor.

Those in favor of the mayoral system say our select board is too scattered and unwieldy to spearhead the sort of change in direction this town needs. A strong mayor, they say, would be able to take the lead on initiatives, cut through political gridlock, and get things done. If they turn out to be terrible at their job, we can vote them out.

Coupled with the question of "do you want a mayoral form of government?" is the question, "what form of mayoral government do you want?"

How many years would the mayor's term be? How many terms could she serve? What role would the select board play? Would we even have a select board? These are important questions we'd need to answer before instituting a mayor.

Changing our form of government would be a huge step to take, one we wouldn't want to stumble on. Frankly, we doubt such a thing could, or should, be accomplished in the time frame this committee is looking at operating under. Perhaps the committee will recommend the issue be examined by a sub-committee over a longer period of time to ensure that whatever is put forward is what's best for the town and merely serving short-term political whims.


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