Municipal Charter Proposals
Why do municipal charter proposals go to the General Assembly?
Chapter II, Section 6 of the Vermont Constitution states, in part, that the General Assembly may “grant charters of incorporation, subject to the provisions of section 69, [and] constitute towns, boroughs, cities and counties....” With the exception of the reference to Sec. 69, that language dates back to Vermont's 1777 Constitution.
Section 69 was added in 1913 and ended the practice of the General Assembly enacting private and public corporate charters through special acts, “except for such municipal, charitable, educational, penal or reformatory corporations as are to be and remain under the patronage or control of the State;...”
How the General Assembly has interpreted these sections has varied. Initially the General Assembly allowed villages to incorporate, as did fire districts, simply through local action, while retaining authority over the creation, amendment, or disincorporation of charters (see Revised Statutes of Vermont, 1840, Chapter 14). In practice, however, villages sought special acts of incorporation from the General Assembly.
The 1910 General Assembly granted the Public Service Commission the authority to review and ratify municipal charters (Act 115, 1910). The Supreme Court, however, issued an advisory opinion (86 Vt. 562 (1913)) to the effect that such a delegation of authority was unconstitutional. The power to “constitute towns, boroughs, cities, and counties” is “a trust, and requires the exercise of judgment and discretion in its execution, and no authority is given to delegate it.”
From 1963 to 1984 the General Assembly followed a process of passive review of local charter votes; that is, if the General Assembly took no action within sixty working days after local adoption of a proposed charter change, the change went into effect. Legislative committee minutes from 1963 reveal that municipalities such as South Burlington and Burlington, which were experiencing rapid growth, argued for greater flexibility in amending their charters in order to keep pace with their changing needs.
Passive review was abandoned through Act 161 of 1984 and the legislature once again ratifies or amends proposed charter amendments.
Regardless of how the General Assembly has addressed municipal charters, the judiciary has consistently recognized that municipalities are creatures of the State. Perhaps the most noted articulation of this recognition was given in Bennington v Park 50 Vt. 178 (1878). In that case, the Vermont Supreme Court reported that “...towns were created by the Legislature pursuant to express authorization conferred by the Constitution. Every power they exercise in the local administration of their affairs is expressly delegated to them by legislative enactment. They are made and unmade at the pleasure of the Legislature, and every purpose of their creation and existence is derived therefrom. They are convenient instrumentalities provided by the State for the purpose of administering those local affairs which the State has judged may be more readily and wisely done by them than it could be by the State itself.” In the same case the Court stated that towns established before the creation of the State of Vermont, such as Bennington, did not retain any special sovereign powers to themselves.
The General Assembly has exercised its authority over municipalities in various ways. In 1937, for example, it disincorporated (Acts 269 and 292) the Towns of Glastenbury and Somerset without calling for a local vote. At the time the towns had populations of seven (Glastenbury) and twenty (Somerset), though under the Constitution each had a representative in the Vermont House.
At times the General Assembly has displayed uncertainty over whether to seek a local confirming vote for a municipal special act. A noted example is Act 11 of 1848, which abolished the Town of Mansfield by annexing its territory to Stowe. The act was, as far as our records show, the result of an ongoing dispute, played out through competing petitions and remonstrances to the General Assembly (see report of select committee on House Bill No. 98, “to annex the Town of Mansfield to Stowe,” Journal of the Vermont House, 1847, pp. 302-303). When annexation actually occurred in 1848, apparently without a local vote, Mansfield's last town representative, Ivory Luce, began a sustained effort to require a local confirming vote. He finally succeeded and Act 68 of 1853 repealed the 1848 annexation “provided, that this act shall not take effect unless each of said towns, as they were prior to annexation, shall vote to adopt the provisions of this act....” The vote apparently went against Mansfield and the annexation remained in effect (the Town of Mansfield records are now in the Stowe town clerk’s office).
The General Assembly has also used its constitutional authority to amend charter proposals approved by municipal voters. See, for example, original act M-25, 1986 in the Archives, which allows a comparison of the charter proposals adopted by Town of Springfield voters on May 21, 1985 and introduced as H. 584 on January 17, 1986, with the final language as enacted in Municipal Act 25 of 1986.
The first general law governing the creation of villages of (1819) simply required that "whenever seven freeholders of any town in this state, in which there shall be a village as aforesaid, shall make application, in writing, to the selectmen of such town, requesting them to lay out and establish the limits and bounds of such village, it shall be the duty of such select-men, to lay out and establish the limits and bounds of such villages, and make return thereof in writing to the town clerk of such town, certified under their hands and cause the same to be recorded in such town clerk's office, and give public notice, of the limits and bounds of such village being laid out and established, by posting up notifications, in not less than three public places in such village.” This act was linked to a statutory requirement “to restrain certain animals from running at large, within villages, in this state." (See Chap. XX, Session Laws of 1819, pp. 33-36).
The following year the General Assembly amended the act to provide a mechanism for selectmen to discontinue the village upon petition by a majority of the freemen living within the village.