Reform RTM? Maybe, But Let’s Understand It First

The dramatic front page Reformer article of March 17th, “Representative Town Meeting reform pitched” left me wondering if Kurt Daims and his “common sense” gang had really done their homework around Brattleboro’s current governmental structure.

Mr. Daims seems to have some confusion as to the roles of both Representative Town Meeting and of the Selectboard. Lately he has been fond of quoting our Town Charter (reviewed and revised as recently as 2013-2016) which states that RTM is “a guiding body for the town and a source of ideas, proposals and comments…” without allowing that full paragraph’s quote to continue with “It exercises exclusively all powers vested in the voters of the Town.” The mention of the powers of voters is the important phrase there.

RTM members are representatives of the voters of our three districts. The RTM is not the legislative branch of town government. That branch, by law (the law being both the Charter and state statute) is vested with the general supervision of the affairs of the Town. See 24 VSA § 872. “The selectboard shall have the general supervision of the affairs of the town and shall cause to be performed all duties required of towns and town school districts not committed by law to the care of any particular officer.” Later in Brattleboro’s Charter, Article IV, Section 6 makes this clear once again: “The selectboard shall have the general oversight of the affairs and property of the town not committed by law to the care of any particular officer, including, but not limited to, the following powers, duties and responsibilities.” It then proceeds to name a broad set of powers, numbering in the thirties.

Make no mistake: Representative Town Meeting is a powerful and respected body, charged with approving the Selectboard’s budget and ratifying many decisions made at the Selectboard level. It may reject a Town budget in full, sending the legislative branch, the Selectboard, back “to the drawing board” and force a return to the representatives of the voters for ratification. It may act as “a guiding body” for Brattleboro with ideas and comments, and indeed it does, time and time again. In my substantial time serving on both RTM and the Selectboard I cannot recall a time when a clear will or desire of RTM was flatly rejected by a Selectboard.

But one thing that RTM does not do is run our Town. That role is performed by the Selectboard, with the day-to-day decisions made by the Selectboard’s employee, the Town Manager, who leads our highly skilled and professionalized staff.

I continue to be a proud fan of Brattleboro’s one and only Representative Town Meeting. I believe it is an elegant solution to the problem of what would be a very unwieldy Town Meeting, in a town our size, if we were to hold it like smaller VT towns. It allows a directly elected group, made up of individuals who can choose to make the time needed to examine each article carefully and deliberate democratically, approve the actions of the Selectboard at least once a year. This body of representatives of the voters, because they have committed themselves to the time and effort (and sacrifice of a long day or days every spring) to pour over pages and pages of budget tables and explanations of decisions, can make more informed decisions (and be a better “guiding” force) than twelve thousand residents who have not made that commitment. And no one should forget that RTM also has a respected RTM Finance Committee, a select group that examines the Selectboard’s budgets even more closely than RTM members do. This year their insights have, in my opinion, been especially valuable to our Town.

Ultimately, all voters are directly in control of both RTM representatives and your Selectboard through direct election every March. If the voters do not like the direction of the Selectboard, they can have a direct influence using the ballot, by changing 3 of the 5 Selectboard members in every single election year. That’s remarkable, and their power does not stop there, since the Charter clearly lays out the additional “Powers of the People” via initiative, referendum, and recall of Selectboard members.

If Mr. Daims or others, after fully understanding these realities concerning the respective powers of RTM and the Selectboard, still seek to change that power relationship, the only way to do so would be to lead a charge to change the Charter, which must then be approved by the Vermont legislature. The most effective and democratic way to do that would be to participate in the next Charter Review Commission, which, because of the substantial statewide changes to our school boards structure, is necessary soon anyway. This would be the best method to discuss ideas such as a “warrant committee”, the protocols of RTM, or the general “balance of powers” between the representatives and the Selectboard.

We should all welcome this healthy conversation, and encourage Mr. Daims to better understand the history and reasoning behind Brattleboro’s strongly democratic political structure, before seeking to “reform” a system that is already calibrated well to serve our community.

Tim Wessel
Brattleboro Selectboard Chair

Comments | 6

  • I take the blame

    I’m glad this topic is getting some discussion.

    I do think, Tim, your complaints against Mr. Daims and “his gang” (ouch) are misdirected. I’m the one who wrote up the suggestion for a Warrant Committee.

    This wasn’t any criticism of the Selectboard or any attempt to usurp powers. Quite the opposite. (And I’m not associated with Daims or BCS and have no stake in those other arguments about “guiding bodies,” balances of power, and such. This isn’t about that, to me.)

    If you look at how RTM came to be, it was based on Milton, MA. The “warrant committee” idea is lifted directly from them. I’ll again refer people to the history of RTM I wrote up:

    Various parts were copied and some parts changed to “fit” Brattleboro. And it wasn’t a natural fit. It took years to settle into place, with multiple attempts and votes to get rid of it.

    The idea of RTM having a new committee similar to Milton’s Warrant Committee isn’t a crazy idea. It’s a bit different than now, but not that much. Dedicated Brattleboro-lovin’ elected folks doing necessary work.

    I would expect a new committee’s work to NOT overturn much of anything. I’d be surprised if the end result was much different than any other year. Anyone who has gone through the Town budget process knows that:

    1. town staff prepares a pretty darn good draft budget
    2. town staff answer any questions and will show the numbers for any number of scenarios
    3. the budget is lean and mean – it has had all the fat already trimmed
    4. there are long term financial plans and capital plans that guide purchases, etc.

    It would be different to have 15 people work on it rather than just 5. It would be different for the selectboard in that they wouldn’t have to do the prepping anymore – just signing off on a trusted committee’s fine work. It would be different for RTM in that more reps would be involved in and understand the budget and related issues.

    I can see how there is a technicality that requires the selectboard to warn articles, but that doesn’t mean the board has to do all the work. Nor would a full Charter change be required. RTM could work with the Town to get this ready while the board does other things. When it’s ready, the selectboard could review it and warn it legally.

    So, change the name of the committee. Instead of warrant, let’s call it budget prep, or committee to suggest articles. It doesn’t have to legally do the warning.

    And if there are other good objections (legality was a good one.. ; ) ) let’s keep discussing.

    Again, my intention with this suggestion is both based on history and meant to better distribute the workload for all and give RTM more involvement (not power) so RTM can better fulfill its intended role.

    (Okay, I admit it. You know my real ulterior motive. You got me. Shorter and fewer selectboard meetings during the holiday season. I’m selfish.)

    • Wrangling over procedure

      I do not understand why a Selectboard member indulges in quarrels over which public body does what, without first seeking a legal opinion from the town attorney.

  • Kurt Daims "and his gang...."

    I think immoderate language detracts from a dispassionate discussion, and is particularly unbecoming for the the Chair of the Brattleboro Selectboard.


    The Reformer article last Thursday has a quote from the town charter: RTM is “a guiding body for the town and a source of ideas, proposals and comments…” . Selectman Tim Wessel suggests an extended quote, stressing that RTM “. . . exercises EXCLUSIVELY all powers vested in the voters of the Town.” This quote is even better for showing the breadth of RTM’s purpose. Again we thank Mr Wessel for his help.

  • Tim Wessel Misspoke

    I am afraid that the assumption that the Brattleboro Selectboard (rather than the Representative Town Meeting) is the “legislative branch of town government,” is unsupported by the Statute cited by Mr. Wessel: 24 VSA § 872.

    That Statute — titled: Selectboard, general powers and duties — is short and clearly written. It sets forth the job of the town Selectboard as, “general supervision.” The Statute includes a simple commentary to illustrate that the supervision to be done by the Selectboard, means oversight of town government officers, and paid staff.

    In other-words, the Statue that Tim cites (as well as the Town Charter) give the Selectboard the role of overseeing administrators and staff, to keep them accountable (which has nothing whatever to do with legislation).

    Nowhere in 24 VSA § 872 does the word, “legislate” even appear!

    It is great that we are discussing and publicly airing disagreements regarding local governance. To be healthy and productive, our dialogue needs be grounded in accurate information. But to mischaracterize the statutory authority of the Selectboard, is not accurate information.

    May I suggest that, as a best practice, before going into print with a legal opinion: Any member of a public body should first ask the Town Attorney to review the legal opinion that you want to publish.

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