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The Valley Reporter
P.O. Box 119
Waitsfield, VT 05673

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Members of town select boards should not see themselves as legislators


By Dean Auslander

I am writing in regard to something that Burt Bauchner said in his recent <MI>Valley Reporter<D> article about how he perceives his role on the Warren Select Board. In my opinion it is a misnomer to refer to the select board as the "legislative body" of the town. While this term can be found in the state statutes, it should be understood that this is not a traditional function of the town select board. Members of today's town select boards should not see themselves as legislators. The primary role of the select board is "the general supervision of the affairs of the town." As such, the role is one of heading up the executive branch of local government.

As best as I can determine, the term "legislative body of a municipality" is a fairly recent creation of the Vermont General Assembly. In an effort to create general statutes that define the role and function of local government, the state legislature created statutes that applied to town, city and village government. In doing so, they identified the selectmen, city councilors (or aldermen) and village trustees as essentially identical in function. While traditionally these local governments have not functioned in exactly the same manner, the General Assembly has created a uniform view of their function, by defining the manner in which local governments (i.e., municipalities) can adopt local laws or ordinances.

It is appropriate to refer to a city council as the legislative body of the municipality. City life usually requires more government regulation as people in close proximity need more laws to govern such things as roads, trash, housing, building, public parks, public entertainment, criminal behavior, etc. As such, city councils have traditionally spent much time on determining local regulations or ordinances that provide for law enforcement and penalties. The cities here in Vermont, unlike most towns, have adopted their own municipal charters, which identify the city council as the legislative body of the city. In addition, most cities elect a mayor to head up the executive branch of government and have a police department to enforce laws.

Town and village governments here in Vermont have not been the same as city governments. Being a rural state, the majority of local governments have been that of towns where people do not live in close proximity. The need for many local laws has not existed.  Where there have been clusters of people within the towns, the village form of government has existed to deal with the needs of these people. The title of trustee is telling, as it suggests an overseeing of a public or common resource of the village people. I would suggest that a more traditional and democratic view is to say that the people assembled at Town Meeting are the legislative body of the town. In the city, it is the city council that approves the budget, but in the town it is the people voting at Town Meeting that approve the budget.

Perhaps it may be appropriate for today's town select board to have some legislative powers, but it should be seen as an adjunct to the function of Town Meeting and not a replacement of it. Today's select board needs to be conscious of the uniqueness of town government and the tradition of Town Meeting. They should not see themselves as the same as city councilors and should be willing to bring local ordinances to the people for a vote. The legislative role of the people at Town Meeting needs to be recognized and preserved.

Dean H. Auslander lives in Warren.

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