Committee recommends charter changes


By Jason Starr
The Colchester Sun

Colchester’s selectboard-appointed governance committee recommended a series of changes to the town charter on Tuesday, following a year of studying the town’s founding document.

The most pressing change, according to committee chairman David Usher, is to make the position of Town Clerk/Treasurer one that is appointed by the town manager rather than elected by the town’s voters. Colchester voters defeated an identical proposal last November; the committee recommends returning the proposal to the ballot in 2016.

“The consequences of having a town clerk that is not up to the job would be catastrophic to the town,” committee member Mickey Palmer said during Tuesday’s selectboard meeting. “You cannot vet an elected official. Anyone who can get enough votes currently can be the town clerk. As an appointed employee, you can do a thorough vetting.”

Town Clerk Karen Richard has held the position for more than 20 years. Palmer said it would behoove the town to have the change in place before she decides to step down.

“We need to somehow get folks to understand what the potential consequences are of having an elected person in that position,” Palmer said.

The selectboard voted unanimously Tuesday to accept the committee’s findings. Chairwoman Nadine Scibek said the board would consider the full suite of recommendations in the spring, setting a timetable for putting them on the ballot. Each proposed change to the town charter would need voter approval to take effect.

The committee’s other recommendations include:

  • — Adding charter language that requires the town to have an ethics/conflict of interest policy and requires all town employees, as well as appointed and elected officials, to sign it. The town currently has a policy written into its employee handbook, according to Town Manager Dawn Francis.
  • “We like the policy you have,” committee member Curt Taylor said, “we just want to make sure it is implemented in the future.”
  • — Removing any charter language about the town’s responsibilities to provide maintenance of private roads. The town’s current patchwork, grandfathered system — it takes responsibility for some private roads but not others — should be the subject of selectboard review, the committee recommends.
  • “The hard work of developing a policy for that issue needs to be put on (the board’s) work plan,” Usher said. “It’s fundamentally an issue of fairness. (The current policy) is not clear, and it needs to be clear.”
  • — Authorizing in the charter the use of 4 percent of the town’s annual budget for emergencies, doubling the current allowance of 2 percent. The committee also recommends codifying the current practice in Colchester of voting on annual town budgets by ballot instead of in a live town meeting.
  • “Since that is the current practice and has been for many years, we felt that should be formalized in the charter,” said Usher.
  • — Creating a charter requirement that all selectboard-approved policies be published on the town’s web site just as all town ordinances are.
  • — Requiring an annual review of the town manager. Francis said she welcomes an annual review of her performance by the selectboard. Palmer, a former selectboard member, said previous boards have let annual town manager performance reviews lapse.
  • — Requiring that the charter be reviewed every five years.