Elected officials often missing in action (8/6/09)

Tax appeal boards plagued by absences

Aug. 6, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Members of the Board of Civil Authority had extra incentive to attend last month’s meeting — the biggest case in years, perhaps ever.

    File photos

On the agenda was a tax appeal by the corporation that owns Maple Tree Place, a giant retail center valued at $80.9 million, the most expensive property in Williston. At stake was hundreds of thousands of dollars in property tax revenue.

Yet only half of the 18-member board showed up. Those who did attend had plenty of elbow room, sitting around a horseshoe-shaped table while the town appraiser and a lawyer for Maple Tree Place argued the case.

Records show that poor attendance is routine for the Board of Civil Authority and the Board of Abatement, each of which under state statute is staffed entirely by elected officials, mainly Selectboard members and justices of the peace.

Town Clerk Deb Beckett said she is frustrated by a steady stream of no-shows. Despite providing ample notice of each meeting, Beckett said she has been forced to make last-minute phone calls to round up members for abatement hearings and had to cancel one meeting after failing to reach a quorum.

“The bottom line is that people know what the commitment is when they run for office,” she said, noting that each candidate is told they must serve on the two boards. “If they can’t do it, they shouldn’t run.”

The Board of Civil Authority is charged with hearing tax appeals from property owners dissatisfied with values set by listers. The board also reviews changes to the voter checklist and completes other election-related duties.

The Board of Abatement considers requests to reduce tax bills. The board can abate taxes when, for example, a house has burned down, making the old valuation outdated, or when a financial crisis prevents a homeowner from paying his or her bill.

The Observer checked attendance by reviewing minutes for both boards from April 2007 through last month, the period the Selectboard as currently constituted has served. The stretch also covers one two-year term and part of another term for many justices of the peace.

The Board of Civil Authority met 14 times and the Board of Abatement held five hearings during the period. Not one meeting of either board drew full attendance.

BCA sessions had as few as four members and as many as 13. Abatement hearings were better attended, with between 10 and 14 members present, but that could be because the board requires half its members to attend to make a quorum.

Juggling commitments

Selectboard members and justices of the peace cited family and work conflicts as the main reasons for missing meetings.

Selectboard member Jeff Fehrs, who failed to attend 10 BCA meetings, said work sometimes keeps him from making the sessions, which are typically held before the Selectboard convenes at 7 p.m.

“I don’t purposely miss meetings, and don’t like to miss them really,” he said. “But sometimes I just can’t make it.”

Selectboard member Judy Sassorossi, who was absent for eight BCA sessions, said she is also challenged by her schedule, noting that sometimes she rushes straight from work and still barely makes it in time for the Selectboard meeting.

“I think people’s intentions are good, but they are busy,” she said. “I don’t think anybody is shirking their commitment.”

Ted Kenney, another Selectboard member, missed 13 of 14 BCA meetings. He said he thought the meetings were adequately covered by others and noted that frequent Selectboard meetings mean he has already made a considerable civic commitment for someone raising small children.

Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig has one of the best attendance records, making nine of the Board of Civil Authority meetings. He said his situation — a widower without young children who works part time — gives him more flexibility than others.

“I’m in some ways fortunate that I’m a single individual without a significant other at home,” he said, quipping that “my cat doesn’t mind” when he heads to Town Hall for meetings.

Political records

Some of the worst attendance records on the Board of Civil Authority are held by the town’s most ambitious politicians.

Chris Roy, a Selectboard member and candidate for secretary of state, has missed 13 of 14 Board of Civil Authority meetings and three of five Board of Abatement hearings.

Roy said he was unclear if he was obligated to attend the meetings because he ran for but was not elected as justice of the peace. He added that his law practice, which deals with land-use issues, frequently creates conflicts of interest that would prevent him from hearing tax appeals. Family commitments also play a role in his absences, Roy said. His child was playing a Little League game the night of the Maple Tree Place hearing.

Ginny Lyons, a state senator representing Chittenden County, serves as one of Williston’s 15 justices of the peace. She has missed 11 Board of Civil Authority meetings, including last month’s hearing. She said that meeting was held on her 40th wedding anniversary.

Lyons said though she receives adequate notice of the meetings, their irregular intervals make it tough for her to fit them into her busy schedule.

Jim McCullough, who represents Williston in the Vermont House and serves as a justice of the peace, has missed eight BCA meetings over the past 2 1/2 years. McCullough said his record during more than 20 years as justice of the peace would show a better attendance rate, but obligations associated with running his business, Catamount Outdoor Family Center, have made it difficult to make recent meetings.

“Owning a small business this past couple of years has been exceedingly trying,” he said.

Selfless or slackers?

Many Selectboard members and justices of the peace have long records of civic service and have volunteered countless hours while raising families and pursuing careers.

Beckett said she recognizes their service and expects that scheduling conflicts will create occasional absences. But she said those who miss many or most meetings create a burden for other members.

Secretary of State Deb Markowitz said state law allows boards of civil authority to meet with a minority of members — as few as three — so not all members have to attend each session, giving the system built-in flexibility.

In fact, Beckett divided the BCA into teams in 2008 so the entire board did not have to hear every tax appeal following a town-wide reappraisal. But poor attendance still prevailed, she said, leaving a handful of board members to do most of the work.

John Cushing, president of the Vermont Municipal Clerks’ and Treasurers’ Association, said he has heard other clerks complain that attendance is increasingly a problem on the boards.

In an earlier era, Cushing said, members were often farmers who could knock off work early to hear a tax appeal or review the voter checklist, but those days are long gone.

Apart from the issues of quorums and workload, absences can alter deliberations and likely lead to different decisions than would have been made by a fully staffed board.

“I think it definitely changes the nature of the debate,” Beckett said. “The fewer people there are, the fewer voices you have.”


Present or missing?

Here are the attendance records from April 2007 to present for select members of the Board of Civil Authority and the Board of Abatement:

Jeff Fehrs, Selectboard

BCA: Missed 10 of 14 meetings

BOA: Missed 2 of 5 meetings

Ted Kenney, Selectboard

BCA: Missed 13 of 14 meetings

BOA: Missed 5 of 5 meetings

Ginny Lyons, justice of the peace

BCA: Missed 11 of 14 meetings

BOA: Missed 2 of 5 meetings

Terry Macaig, Selectboard

BCA: Missed 5 of 14 meetings

BOA: Missed 1 of 5 meetings

Jim McCullough, justice of the peace

BCA: Missed 8 of 14 meetings

BOA: Missed 1 of 5 meetings

Chris Roy, Selectboard

BCA: Missed 13 of 14 meetings

BOA: Missed 3 of 5 meetings

Judy Sassorossi, Selectboard

BCA: Missed 8 of 14 meetings

BOA: Missed 1 of 5 meetings