|VERMONT SECRETARY OF STATE - Jim Condos|
|State of Vermont
Office of the
Secretary of State
Volume 4 Number 1
| This holiday season is especially
poignant. After the attacks of September 11th we have, as a
country, begun to count our blessings. It is as important as ever to do
the same in our own lives. In my life there is a great deal to give thanks
for. I have a loving (and very tolerant) husband, three beautiful children
who are happy and healthy, good friends, bright, energetic and committed
staff, and, all of you who make serving as your Secretary of State the
pleasure that it is.
While we have accomplished much this year – passing an election reform law, publishing a number of new educational pamphlets, starting a local leadership training program, to name just a few - what I know more clearly than ever is that this office works, and indeed, Vermont works because of its people. None of our accomplishments would have been possible without the assistance and support of the staff here at the Secretary of State’s Office, and without the suggestions and encouragement we received from our advisory boards, task forces and from those of you who regularly use our services.
I wish you and your families a wonderful holiday season and a healthy and happy New Year.
A Voice from the Past
A Voice from the Past
January 1, 2002
After the meeting, we all get in our cars and drive home. Each gets into bed, turns out the light, and then the movie starts. Against the shadows in the room, on the walls and ceiling, the meeting is replayed, sometimes over and over, until the memory merges with dreams and sleep overtakes us.
The time between the end of a meeting and the arrival of sleep can be calculated, in my experience, by the length of the meeting. For a two-hour meeting, I can expect to lie in bed going over it for about that same length of time. The meeting is not identical to the movie I see in my mind. Sometimes a particular encounter, usually a testy one, takes greater prominence and more time than the slow parts of the evening. Try as I might, I can never find the fast-forward button.
Meetings can be boring, funny or tragic, just as any human encounter. They can be arenas for the under-appreciated, pulpits for the righteous, battlefields for the disgruntled. Most meetings are made up of a few moments of light and heat, interrupted by longer periods of waiting for light and heat. During the waiting, our minds wander into other things, and these too get mixed into the memories. That may be why minutes of meetings often seem so lifeless, because ultimately a meeting is not easily reducible to writing. It happens, and then we all go home and try to forget it, but it won’t let us. It won’t let go until it has had its full measure of our attention.
I once made the mistake of thinking I could write the minutes for the meeting that just ended when I got home, so that I could be done with it more easily, but in fact that had the opposite effect and extended the time before sleep would be allowed even more. Sitting up, the only one awake in the house, thinking about a meeting, is neither romantic nor adverturesome.
There is a science to holding a good meeting, and strong-minded people have tried their best to enforce its rules, but in the end everybody is hostage to anybody, and that anybody will insist that he be allotted his full measure of time to speak. In non-democratic systems, meetings are probably far more efficient. Remembering that democracy is an ideal, at meetings, democracy sometimes seems an exercise in self-indulgence.
In the dark, in bed after the meeting, what people said, the faces they made as they spoke, the body language they used, all become magnified or distended. In the moments just before sleep comes, I have seen the entire board in my mind’s eye, sitting around that table, turn into talking animals or vegetables or watched them float up to the ceiling and around the room, as happens in dreams. By that time, the meeting is finally coming to an end. Tomorrow it will have faded and by the next meeting most of what happened will have evaporated like rime ice after the sun comes out.
The whole process is one of letting go, and it’s an essential part of coming to grips with what has happened. If we didn’t care so much about the town, you couldn’t pay us to go to these meetings, but we do care, and that’s what prevents us from slipping out of the meeting after we get home the way we slip off a coat or hat. Sure we carp. Sure we complain about one or another chowderhead who wouldn’t give in, whose monologues extended the meeting for an extra hour, about the waste of time. But we’ll be there next time, bet on it, because it matters.
We’ll be there next time, and the time after that, and each time when we get home we’ll go through the same debriefing process. Eventually we’ll learn to leave time for the replay, instead of hopping into bed in the innocent belief that sleep should come after the day is done. The truth is, sleep comes only after everything has been reviewed, analyzed, criticized and digested. Only then can we truly rest.
Opinions Volume 4 Number 1 January 2002
1. Voters May Create Smaller Schoolboard. Vermont law permits voters to rescind a previous action to increase the size of the schoolboard. Such a vote would require a five-member schoolboard to be changed back to a three-member board. 16 V.S.A.§423(a). To do this, the warning of an annual or special school district meeting must include an article, "Shall the Town School District of XXXX rescind its previous action to increase the school board to five members and return to a three member board." If this article passes, the two schoolboard members who are serving either one or two year terms will finish the term to which they were elected. At the end of their terms, the two additional school board offices would be discontinued. This article would be considered a public question, so the vote would be by voice vote unless the district had previously voted to handle all public questions by Australian ballot.
2. Voters May Elect to Go Back to Paper Ballots for the Election of Officers. When a town or school district has voted to elect officers by Australian ballot the voters may decide to return to paper ballots and voice votes for election of officers. To make the change, an article must be placed on the warning that says: "Shall the Town of XXX discontinue the use of Australian ballot for the election of officers." 17 V.S.A. §2680(b). The article is a public question, so that the vote would be by voice vote unless the town had previously voted to handle all public questions by Australian ballot. In order to change the method of voting for the upcoming Annual Town Meeting, this article must be voted at a special meeting before Town Meeting. In the alternative, this article can be voted at Town Meeting this year with the change in voting method to take place at the 2003 Town Meeting.
3. Petitions to Place Items On Ballot Must Be Submitted Early. Vermont law requires the selectboard to place petitioned articles on the ballot when the petition, containing signatures of 5% of the voters and has been received by the Selectboard or the Schoolboard at least 40 days prior to Town Meeting. 17 V.S.A.§2642(a).
4. Selectboard May Reject Petitions If Outside Authority of the Voter. The selectboard does not have to place every petitioned article on the warning – only those that involve issues that Vermont law permits the voters or electorate to decide. Proposed articles that involve action that is specifically delegated to the selectboard, schoolboard or other local board or elected official may be rejected. It is in the board’s discretion to put "advisory" articles on the warning, or to reject such articles. It is wise to consider whether the board will follow the "advice" of the voters on an advisory article, before adding it to the warning. It can be very frustrating to voters to vote on an issue at town meeting and then find that the board is not going to follow the advice of the vote.
5. There Is No Recall Of Public Officials In Vermont. Rural myths persist that voters can use a petition with 5% of the legal voters of town signature to call a special meeting to vote a public official out of office. This is not true. Vacancies in a municipal office in Vermont can only be created by resignation, death, or "removing from town." 24 V.S.A. §961.
6. The Board Of Abatement Exercises Discretion When Deciding Whether To Abate Taxes In Vermont. 24 V.S.A.§1535 sets out a number of circumstances in which a board of abatement may choose to abate the taxes of a property owner. The statute does not require abatement under any circumstances, and the courts have affirmed the board’s right to exercise discretion in these matters. Abatement is meant to be an equitable remedy, used only in the most unusual cases. If a taxpayer has intentionally destroyed a building on the parcel, the board can takes these facts into consideration as it makes its decision.
7. There is No Time Limit On Abatement. The Board of Abatement’s job is to exercise its discretion in order to be fair to taxpayers and to cure injustices. This means that if a taxpayer only now catches a listing error that began six years ago, the board is free to abate all six years of the tax that was paid as the result of the error.
8. Board May Abate Mistake During Any Part of Tax Assessment Process. Vermont law permits abatement when there has been a manifest error or a mistake of the listers – at any point in the process. This means that if a typographical error was made when typing the grand list or the tax bills, abatement can fix the problem. If the listers make a mistake when the grand list is lodged, the error can be fixed by abatement. Note, however, the board should not abate errors of the taxpayer ("I made an error in the zip code when I sent my tax payment so my payment was late.")
9. Municipal Fiscal Year Ends Dec 31 Unless Voted Otherwise. The fiscal year of other municipalities shall end on December 31, unless the municipality votes at an annual or special meeting duly warned for that purpose to have a different fiscal year, in which case the fiscal year so voted shall remain in effect until amended. 24 V.S.A. § 1683.
10. The Town Report Must Be Distributed At Least 10 Days Prior To Town Meeting. It is the responsibility of the town board of auditors to prepare an annual town report. The law requires that this report be mailed or distributed to the voters of the town at least ten days prior to town meeting. 24 V.S.A.§1682(a). If a town has voted to eliminate the office of auditor, the findings of the public accountant must be mailed or otherwise distributed by the selectboard at least ten days prior to Town Meeting.
11. Town Auditors Must Meet To Examine Financial Records. Vermont law requires town auditors to meet at least twenty-five days before each annual town meeting to examine and adjust the accounts of all town and town school district officers. Notice of this meeting must be posted or published ten days in advance of the meeting. 24 V.S.A. § 1681.
12. Town Officers Must Open Books To Auditors. Vermont law requires town officials to work with the auditors to ensure an accurate audit and report on the town’s fiscal health. The law provides that any town officer who "wilfully refuses or neglects to submit his or her books, accounts, vouchers or tax bills to the auditors or the public accountant upon request, or to furnish all necessary information in relation thereto, shall be ineligible to reelection for the year ensuing and be subject to the penalties otherwise prescribed by law." 24 V.S.A. § 1686.
13. School Records Not Always Audited By Board. If a town has not elected to eliminate the office of auditor, and town auditors and the school board agree, the town auditors need not conduct an audit of school district accounts as to school district fiscal years that are audited by a public accountant. 24 V.S.A. § 1681
14. Warning Must Be Published If It Is Not Mailed. If the Warning for Town Meeting is not included in the town report and mailed or otherwise distributed to the voters at least 10 days before Town Meeting, then the Warning must be published in a newspaper of general circulation in the municipality at least five days before the meeting. 17 V.S.A.§2641(b).
15. More Signatures Required For Petition To Bond. A petition to the Selectboard to place an article that includes a bonding proposal on the warning for Town Meeting requires signatures of TEN (10%) of the legal voters, not the usual 5%. 24 V.S.A.§1755(a). The statute also provides very specific information, including the object and purpose of the indebtedness, the estimated cost of the improvements, the amount of bonds to be issued, and the specific form of the question in the Article. 24 V.S.A.§1755 and 1758.
16. Deadlines Approach for Designating Polling Places. January 24, 2002 is the last day for the Board of Civil Authority to designate polling places, and if necessary, divide the checklist for Town Meetings using Australian ballot voting. 17 V.S.A.§2501. Please review your polling places for accessibility by the physically disabled. If any accessible alternate sites are available within your town, please designate as an accessible polling place. Historical or cultural significance is not enough. If your town includes any public buildings that are accessible, you cannot designate an inaccessible polling place.
17. Candidates for Local Office May Have To File Campaign Finance Reports With Town. Local candidate’s who raise and/or spend over $500 in local campaigns must file campaign finance reports with the Town Clerk ten days before the election and ten days after the election. 17 V.S.A.§2822. Last year several candidates exceeded the threshold. Please remind local candidates of the campaign finance law and the necessity to file. We have sent copies of the disclosure forms and campaign finance guides to all Town Clerks. Copies of the Guide and all necessary forms are also on our website: http://www.sec.state.vt.us.
18. Membership in Organization Does Not Alone Create Conflict of Interest. A zoning board member who belongs to an organization that has taken a position on a matter before the board does not necessarily have a conflict of interest that would require recusal from the matter. If the individual is on the policy making board of the organization, or if he or she feels that the fact that the organization has taken a position in the matter will influence his or her judgment in the matter, or if the organization is a party, then the board member should step down from the matter. In the event that the board member chooses not to step down, he or she should nevertheless disclose the relationship and explain at the hearing why no actual conflict exists. See 12 V.S.A. § 61.
19. Town/Village May Limit Truck Weight on Class 2 Roads. Vermont law permits The legislative body of a municipality to limit the legal load on a class 2, 3 or 4 highway or bridge in the municipality. In addition, when the legislative body of a municipality requests in writing, the secretary of transportation may set the weight limit on a class 1 town highway at less than the state highway limit if a reasonable alternative route is available for those vehicles traveling at the state highway limit. 19 V.S.A. § 1396.
20. Listers Meeting Must Be Warned. Whenever a quorum of the board of listers are together and discuss the value of properties, or do any other work of the board, the meeting must be publicly announced and must be open to the public. If the meeting is at a regular time (i.e. their office hours) the board may post this as a meeting time in the town office. If it is outside of those hours it must be publicly noticed as a special meeting (posted in three places and notice and agenda given to local media.) 1 V.S.A § 312.
21. Wife of Selectboard Member May Serve As Lister. There is no legal conflict that would prevent a spouse of a selectboard member from serving as a lister. The board member should not participate in deciding the pay or budget for the lister's office, and should not participate on the BCA for the purpose of hearing tax appeals. (See 17 V.S.A. §§ 2647, 2456, 16 V.S.A. § 558, for discussion of incompatible offices.)
22. Federal Overtime Kicks In After 40 Hours Worked. While a town’s personnel policy or collective bargaining agreement may provide more generous benefits, the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act only requires an employer (including a municipality) to pay overtime (or to provide compensatory time) to an employee who has worked over 40 hours in a seven day period. This means that under the federal law, if an employee works four ten-hour days – no overtime is due. If an employee takes a vacation or sick day and then works forty hours – no overtime is due. Note that different rules may apply to police, fire and emergency workers.
23. Delinquent Tax Collector May Be Elected for Three-Year Term. A new Vermont law permits voters to elect a delinquent tax collector for a three-year term. However, in order to change the term for this coming year, a vote must be taken prior to town meeting to change the term to three years. Unless a town establishes the three-year term by vote at a special meeting prior to town meeting, the next delinquent tax collector will be elected for a one-year term. If the town votes at town meeting to make the term of delinquent tax collector three years, this longer term will kick in at the following annual meeting. 17 V.S.A. § 2642.
24. Towns Have Tools To Clean Up Junkyard. A relatively new Vermont law provides municipalities with authority to address junkyards in their town. Section 2201 of title 24 provides, in part,
"Every person shall be responsible for proper disposal of his or her own solid waste. A person shall not throw, dump, deposit, cause, or permit to be thrown, dumped, or deposited, bottles, glass, crockery, cans, scrap metal, plastic, solid waste as defined in 10 V.S.A. § 6602, junk, paper, garbage, old automobiles, or parts thereof, refuse of whatever nature, or any noxious thing on lands of others or within 300 feet of the lands of others, public or private, or into the waters of this state, or on the shores or banks thereof or on or within view of a public highway."
This law is designed to prohibit junked cars and other scrap metal from being placed within view of the road. If a person violates this law they can be issued a ticket carrying a penalty of up to $500. The penalty is civil – not criminal, and violations are enforced by the Judicial Bureau – in much the same way that traffic tickets can either be paid or appealed. The town can designate someone as its enforcement officer, and, after submitting their name to the judicial bureau, this person can issue tickets under this law. In addition, the law specifically permits the town attorney as well as law enforcement officers to issue the tickets. You can get the ticket forms from the judicial bureau.
Tuesday, January 8
Thursday, January 24
(Not less than 40 days before Town Meeting)
Last day to file petitions signed by at least
5% of voters with the Town Clerk for articles
to be included in Town Meeting warnings.
Looking Ahead to February
Sunday, February 3
(Not less than 30 days before Town Meeting)
Last day for municipality to post warnings
and notice of Town Meeting. 17:2641 (a)
Sunday, February 10
Last day for Selectboard to file with Town
Clerk annual statement of description and
Measurement of all Class 1, 2, 3 town highways,
Then in existence, including special descriptions.
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