News

Legislators overrule voters on charter changes

 BY JASON STARR

Observer staff

In March of 2020, Williston voters overwhelmingly approved three changes to the town’s charter. Over this past winter, however, two of them were rejected by state legislators. 

The charter is the town’s over-arching governing document. Any changes require legislative approval. 

Lawmakers in the House Government Operations Committee gave a thumbs up to one of the three changes this spring, and the full Legislature followed suit. That change gives authority over hiring and firing the director of the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library to the town manager. Previously, that authority had rested with the Library Board of Trustees. 

Town Manager Erik Wells noted that the change formalized the way library directors had been hired in the past, with the town manager making the hire with the advice and consent of the library trustees.

“There wasn’t a formal documentation of who does have the final authority and what the (hiring) process would look like, so that led to the charter change process,” Wells said. “It does the town well to have that documented in the town charter.”

In conjunction with the charter change, the town and trustees signed a memorandum of understanding in 2020 to formalize how a variety of items will be managed between the two entities.

But when it came to two other charter changes the town sent to the Statehouse this session, Williston voters were overruled by lawmakers.

The town sought more power over local governance with both proposals, one of which would have allowed the town to enact charter changes without legislative approval as long as another town had enacted a similar charter change. 

“The concept is, if one municipality is allowed to do something by virtue of its charter, other municipalities should be able to ‘opt-in’ for the same and not be subject to a legislative review,” Wells wrote in a recent memo to the selectboard.

According to Rep. John Gannon, the vice chair of the House Government Operations Committee, lawmakers on the committee were advised by the Legislature’s lawyers that such an allowance would be “unconstitutional.”

“The Legislature has the power to make charter changes,” said Gannon, who also serves on the Town of Wilmington Selectboard. “Allowing a town to pick and choose charter changes made by other towns could lead to very odd results.”

The committee also rejected a proposal that would have set up a town-specific process to handle negotiating impasses on employment contracts between the town and its firefighter and police officer unions. A state law passed in 2019 requires towns and public safety unions to resolve impasses through binding arbitration. Williston has relied on mediation during contract negotiation impasses — with binding arbitration only as an optional final step. But that process is not codified in the town charter. 

The charter change that voters approved “would have established a process in the charter that would have been different than state statute,” Wells said. 

Rep. Gannon said legislative lawyers advised Government Operations Committee members to reject the proposal so as not to create inconsistencies with collective bargaining processes among municipalities. 

“We didn’t understand why (Williston) needed collective bargaining language in its charter given it is already in state statutes,” he said. 

Wells expects towns to continue to push for freedom from state lawmakers when it comes to local charter changes. 

“(Charter changes) can take a very long time and many steps,” he said. “We’re looking to expedite that process and really have local control and the will of the people in the community to decide on those issues.”