By Nancy Richardson, Contributor
This report provides a summary of telephone interviews conducted during the first few weeks of November 2021. A selection of Charlotte community leaders, town staff members, and regional and local planners from nearby towns offered their insights and opinions. The observations were then distilled, and common themes and recommendations were extracted.
This was not a scientific survey. Rather, it is a snapshot of how informed decision-makers and community volunteers view the state of our town’s governance. The respondents’ observations were then assembled and analyzed through the lens of the author.
Charlotte is one of the wealthiest and most beautiful of towns in Vermont. The rural character of its striking landscape, which stretches inland from Lake Champlain, has been substantially preserved through diligent community efforts.
Charlotte’s Town Plan presents bold initiatives critical to maintaining its vitality. The Plan was first adopted in 1990s and was rewritten and approved in 2008. Since then, various amendments have been adopted. Among the eight overring goals, two stand out as being particularly aspirational:
- To reinforce historic settlement patterns by focusing growth in our hamlets, and east and west village, while conserving our Areas of High Public Value.
- To promote social, economic, cultural and racial diversity, and sense of community through actions that encourage moderately priced and affordable housing, a sustainable agricultural economy, social, educational and commercial services, and environmentally sound rural and small business enterprises.
How are we progressing on the implementation of these goals? What steps has our local government taken to advance and sustain the vision they strive for?
Many of the interviewees approved of Charlotte’s progress on land conservation and the town’s efforts to sustain small, family farms. But there was some frustration about the lack of services and development in town centers. One respondent suggested that the two goals of the Town Plan would never be implemented because “Charlotters are afraid of development.” Others said that the town governance system does not enable a focus on the implementation of priorities.
An example of such inaction is in the pursuit of affordable housing. Despite creation of an Affordable Housing Trust Fund a decade ago, only a few units have been produced that might contribute to diversity. Support for new development of any kind in the village centers has stalled. Sidewalks for pedestrian safety have proved controversial. Waste water services are limited and there is no central town water source. Charlotte has few community services to sustain a thriving town.
- Focus and Implementation
Local public planners and managers attest to the need for a vision—and specific goals— to move an organization forward. The goals must define where the organization is headed and what it seeks to achieve. The vision and goals are included in the Town Plan.
One respondent described town plans as being hundreds of tasks waiting to be accomplished. Such a bundle of initiatives would be impossible to implement in any reasonable timeframe, and certainly not in a single year. Success with any advancement relies on focus. The selectboard and planning commission need to prioritize a few major initiatives each year, and focus policy on implementation of those goals.
The second most important aspect of advancing priorities is to design implementation systems. To be successful, systems need paths that are structured to lead to completion and that can be accomplished in a timely manner. “Timely” should be measured in months, not years. Many Charlotte initiatives have died because there have been no such strategies attached to them. Implementation efforts require schedules for getting needed items on the Town Meeting agendas, end-dates for project completion, and budgets.
The need for prioritization was stated in interviews with administrators from other towns. Planning directors from Westford and Richmond underscored the need to include communications plans in the rollout of projects. Communication is essential for securing meaningful input and buy-in from community members in early design phases. That does not mean that all citizens must agree on an action. But the public should have a reasonable opportunity to express opinions and offer suggestions. One person suggested that the selectboard report annually to the broader community on the progress of implementing the priorities of the Town Plan.
- Leadership by the Selectboard
Most of those interviewed recognized the time and work that goes into serving as a selectboard member. Managing public administrations in the 21st century has become a complicated affair, with numerous legal and regulatory requirements, a long list of compliance tasks, and multiple budgetary conflicts.
Some respondents felt that our selectboard management is acceptable, but that the board would benefit from some assistance in conducting and organizing meetings. Other respondents said that major changes in selectboard management and procedures should be adopted.
Respondents identified persistent selectboard management issues over time including: actual or perceived conflicts of interest; lack of knowledge of substantive items on meeting agendas; overuse of executive sessions to shield discussion; and endless meetings that are packed with too many administrative matters. These problems have detracted from achieving progress on essential matters facing the town, including movement on major town goals.
Additional concerns were expressed about overall management of committees and staff. Frequent staff turnover has been an indicator of problems in supervision and management.
Many interviewees noted that operational details have gotten so complicated that a volunteer governance system cannot successfully manage them. There was broad support for the town administrator being authorized to assume additional management functions, or for a shift to a town manager model. There was almost universal approval of the adoption of the Development Review Board.
Respondents expressed broad support for greater efforts between the town administrator and the selectboard to define priorities. Briefing materials for scheduled meetings should be distributed sooner, and agendas that can be accomplished within a reasonable amount of time should be crafted. Two to three hours was frequently mentioned as an appropriate time limit for regular board meetings.
Whether the title for the position is called town administrator or town manager, many felt the job description should provide for supervisory powers over town operations. As currently designed, the administrator’s function is primarily to serve as administrative assistant to the selectboard. This model may be improved with more effective leadership by the selectboard chair. Strong leadership by the chair was emphasized by all as a requirement for the town to move forward.
- The Management of Public Comment
Several concerns were expressed about the selectboard’s management of public comment at its meetings. The Vermont Selectboard Handbook states that public comments should be limited in duration. Specifically, “agenda items such as Other Business and Public Comment should be used sparingly.”
In Charlotte, there is allowance for public comment after each agenda item. Time is also allotted for public comment on items that may not be identified on the agenda. This lax arrangement often results in a dialogue between selectboard members and members of the audience that can interfere with the proper consideration of agenda items. One planner stated, “public comment is not an exchange. It is comment directed by the rules.”
Many towns provide an initial ten minutes of time for public comments on both agenda and non-agenda items, with allotments of no more than three minutes per person. If a particular item needs more time, the selectboard must vote for that extension. For controversial issues, a sign-up sheet is required, and all commenters have time limits. Concerned citizens may voice their opinions, but they must not seek to engage in dialogues with other audience members or the selectboard. Town managers commented that the management of public comment requires a delicate balance and firm leadership from the chair.
- Public Communication in the Process
Several planner interviewees described public participation in the early stages of implementation as key to successful public support. Appropriate, early public participation can answer the question posed by one respondent: “What will development in the town look like?” Two examples that resonated were from the towns of Richmond and Westford.
Westford worked through a planning process to learn how a wastewater system might be installed in the village. After a site was identified, a group of key citizens led a communication plan to engage the public. The effort included a website, public meetings, field visits, and articles in the local news with visual graphics. The involvement of town leaders in public discussion reinforced the feeling that Westford is a town that cares about its citizens.
In Richmond, the town planner led small group discussions on the need for affordable housing. Options for design were considered, as was amending the Land Use Regulations. The process resulted in suggestions for design and placement. The town then hired a housing consultant to provide a more detailed plan. That resulting design will now go back to the neighborhoods for discussion. Only then will the changes in the LURs be voted upon.
The Role of Committees
Representative government in Vermont is enhanced by the number of volunteers who participate. In Charlotte, as many as 160 residents serve on the numerous town committees. One respondent commented, “Volunteers are our treasure, but that comes with many difficulties in management.”
Volunteers reflect a wide range of expertise and experience. As one respondent suggested, “An informed citizenry is essential to the functioning of democracy, and citizen volunteers should, at a minimum, receive training in their responsibilities as committee members under the law.” It would be helpful for volunteers to read the Town Plan relevant to their committees, and to be aware of how their committee actions and initiatives fit into it. One person suggested that the town create a handbook for volunteers.
Charlotte committees were described as “silos, operating on their own with little interaction or supervision by the selectboard.” Some people join the committees because they have strong positions on specific issues. While committees are a place to exercise advocacy, the duty of members is to act in the best interests of the town while implementing aspects of the Town Plan. “All decisions made by town appointees will be based on the interests of the community at large… and no appointee may take part in a decision in which the appointee has a direct or indirect financial interest.” (Town of Charlotte Selectboard Policy Regarding Conflict of Interest.)
Both outside planners and some residents suggested that either the town administrator or the selectboard chair meet with the chairs of major committees every two weeks to review progress. If there is a problem in the functioning of committees, the administrator or chair would have the authority to intercede. All committee chairs should also meet together at certain times in the year. One local respondent suggestion that the town consider hiring a “volunteer coordinator.”
Recommendations: These recommendations were developed from the interviews and constructed by the author.
Under the leadership of a strong chair, the selectboard and the planning commission should choose a small number of priorities from the Town Plan and devote the subsequent twelve months to designing and implementing those goals.
- The selectboard chair, working with the town administrator or town manager, should refine and consolidate meeting agendas, including consent agendas; prepare members prior to meetings; offload routine administrative duties to others in order to focus on priorities for action; prepare members on requirements of the law; and carefully manage the length of meetings.
- The selectboard and the planning commission should develop implementation plans for each priority goal. The plans should include (a) a definition of planning resources; (b) a workplan with timeline and end-dates; (c) a communication plan that solicits suggestions from the community; (d) a budget; and (e) the involvement of community groups in planning and funding.
- The selectboard should revisit and revise its rules and procedures for managing public comment at meetings.
- The selectboard should consider whether the town needs to upgrade the job description of the town administrator or change to a town manager model to improve governance.
- Both the selectboard and the planning commission should make early public interaction a key strategy in the implementation of major initiatives.
- All volunteers who serve on town committees should be educated on the recent history of related decisions, aspects of the Town Plan relevant to their committees, conflict of interest rules, and other necessary information. The selectboard chair or the town administrator should meet regularly with committee chairs as part of ongoing supervision. Committee chairs should themselves meet together semi-annually.
In its Town Plan, Charlotte has defined the kind of town it wants to be. Though adhering to some elements of the Plan may be cumbersome, it must be more than a “ghost plan.” The Town Plan should be an active guide for both initiatives and decision-making. The selectboard must adopt key priorities and then supervise the focused implementation of those goals through structured and accountable management.
Nancy Richardson’s professional career has included senior positions in government at the federal, state, and local levels. She has authored several reports and articles on the leadership and implementation of government initiatives in Vermont and in eight other states.
Interviewees for this report were Peter Joslin, Larry Lewack, Dean Bloch, Nancy Wood, Kate Lampton, Charles Russell, Lee Krohn (Shelburne), Tod Odit (Hinesburg), Bill Schubart, Lane Morrison, Regina Mahony (Regional Planning), Tom Grady (League of Cities and Towns), Mike Russell, Dana Hanley, Gretchen Morse, Melissa Manka (Westford), Ravi Venkataraman (Richmond), Robert Bloch, and Beth Humstone.