Hearing set on charter changes 9/25/08

Sept. 25, 2008
By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Changes to Williston’s charter that alter how zoning enforcers are supervised and provide more clout in negotiating solid waste contracts will be considered during a pair of public hearings in coming weeks.

The hearings are scheduled for Monday, Sept. 29 and Monday, Oct. 6. Each takes place at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall.

The charter changes address issues the town has faced in recent months. Each change circumvents state laws that town officials regard as disadvantageous.

The first change was prompted by a controversy that swirled around former zoning administrator D.K. Johnston after he was charged with stalking and disturbing the peace. Police alleged that he sent dozens of harassing e-mails and left a profanity-filled message at the home of a real estate agent who had sold him a condominium.

With personnel actions confidential, it is unclear if the town tried to fire Johnston or force him to resign. But because state law requires zoning administrators to be appointed to three-year terms, it evidently influenced how the town handled the matter.

Johnston insisted that he first serve out his term, which ended June 30, and remain on the town’s payroll until he stepped down. A written resignation agreement also forbids bad references.

The proposed charter changes would make the zoning administrator a hired, rather than appointed, position. Town Manager Rick McGuire would have the authority to hire and fire the person holding the position.

During a discussion of the charter changes in July, Selectboard member Judy Sassorossi recalled that the town has run into other problems with zoning administrators in years past.

“Once burned, twice shy,” she said. “But twice burned? I don’t want to do this again.”

Johnston’s departure left the town in a bind because two other members of the planning staff had recently resigned and there was no other obvious candidate to fill the opening. The Selectboard ended up appointing Planning Director Ken Belliveau as interim zoning administrator.

The other charter change turns on a single word in the state statute governing solid waste contracts. Under the law, municipalities “may” strike agreements with solid waste districts requiring them to pay fees.

Williston has three such host-town agreements, including two it recently renewed with All Cycle Waste Inc. and Burlington Transfer Station Inc. The fees they pay totaled more than $300,000 in the last fiscal year, helping offset wear and tear on local roads caused by the larger number of trucks that come and go from each facility.

McGuire said the use of “may” in the state statute puts the town at a disadvantage when negotiating solid waste contracts. He proposed a charter change that states solid waste providers “shall” enter into such agreements prior to receiving certification and recertification.

McGuire said “neither company raised the state law as an issue” during the recently completed negotiations with All Cycle and BTS. Still, he said the new language could give the town more clout in future contract talks.

“We felt the way the state law is worked would give us less leverage than having it in our charter and using the word ‘shall’ instead of ‘may’,” McGuire said in an e-mail.

The public hearings are part of a state-mandated process for approving charter provisions. Voters must sign off on the changes, which will be on the Nov. 4 ballot. The state Legislature would then have to approve the changes.