Town charter changes proposed

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Williston voters next week will get a sneak peek at some items to appear on the town ballot in November.

Proposed changes to the Williston town charter – which would include safeguarding a local option sales tax that generates roughly $2.8 million annually for the town – will be discussed at the first of two public hearings Monday night. The hearing begins at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall.

Members of a town charter revision task force are recommending seven changes to the town’s charter that was first approved by Williston voters in 2003 and by the state Legislature in 2004. Chief among the changes is a provision for a local option sales tax, according to Town Manager Rick McGuire. Should the Legislature repeal the law allowing towns to levy local option taxes, Williston, on the basis of its charter, would still be able to levy the tax, McGuire said.

“Our feeling is we should get it in our charter as quickly as possible while everything is fresh in everyone’s minds, so that if there is a change in state law, the town charter would take over,” McGuire said.

In 2002, Williston voters approved a 1 percent sales tax, and in 2003 Williston voters approved a 1 percent tax on rooms, meals and alcoholic beverages. In 2004, Williston voters reaffirmed their commitment to the 1 percent tax by a hefty margin: 1,938-321. The state law allowing local options taxes was set to end in 2008, but the Legislature this spring decided to allow the option to continue indefinitely. The Legislature also approved a change in Burlington’s town charter allowing the local option tax, similar to what the charter revision task force is proposing.

A memo from Paul Gillies, one of the town’s attorneys, recommends that voters this November be allowed to vote on the proposed charter changes separately – meaning the local option tax provision would be separate from the other six changes proposed.

The other changes proposed, McGuire said, are smaller.

“Any of these other issues would not have prompted us to change the charter,” McGuire said. “But when you’re looking at the big things, it makes sense to look at the little things as you move forward.”

One of those smaller changes would allow the town to impose employment agreements for the town’s fire and police chiefs. The proposed language says that the chiefs shall be appointed by the town manager and employed under a renewable option contract for a term not to exceed five years nor less than one year. An employee not meeting expectations could be dismissed.

McGuire said currently under state law, for example, a police chief has more or less a lifetime appointment. If found not meeting his or her obligations, under state law a chief cannot be fired except in cases of egregious wrongs, McGuire said, making it difficult for town officials to ensure optimal performance of public safety officials.

When asked if this provision was prompted by circumstances involving a current fire or police chief or the police chief who retired earlier this year, McGuire said he would not comment on personnel matters.

Williston Police Chief Jim Dimmick said he told McGuire he was OK with the employment agreements when McGuire spoke with him about the proposals during the hiring process.

“My personal philosophy is that I am here at the will of the town manager and the Selectboard,” Police Chief Jim Dimmick said. “If they said at any point ‘you’re not reflecting our needs or our philosophy in town,’ I would expect they have the right to say ‘please move on to something else.’”

Fire Chief Ken Morton was not available for comment prior to deadline.

The remaining changes proposed to the charter are as follows: eliminate the appointed positions of weigher of coal, fence viewer, and surveyor of wood and lumber – positions McGuire said are anachronistic; eliminate as elected positions the town agent, trustee of public funds and grand juror – positions that are no longer needed or whose duties have been assumed by town employees; change from elected to appointed the Cemetery Commission and Old Brick Church Trustees; clarify who opens town meeting before the moderator is selected; and add the ability for a vote to change the time town meeting starts.

The second required public hearing on the proposed changes is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 9 at Town Hall.