Ask Bob: Why Vermont State Lawmakers Ultimately Get To Approve Town Charter Changes

Mar 18, 2019

This past Town Meeting Day, voters in South Burlington backed a plan to tax rental cars. However in a case like this, where local residents vote to make a change to their town charter, it still needs to be approved by the Vermont Legislature before it can go into effect. So why is that? And might that process change? 

VPR's senior political reporter Bob Kinzel fills us in on the complexities of charter changes in this installment of the Ask Bob series.

Why state lawmakers get to weigh in on town decisions

The authority of the Legislature to oversee the charters of individual towns comes from the Vermont Constitution that was adopted in 1793. 

Chapter II, Section 6 gives the General Assembly the power to "grant charters of incorporation" and "constitute towns, borroughs, cities and counties." Later in Section 69, it also says that charters cannot be “granted, extended, changed or amended” without the control of the state.

Basically it's saying that because the Legislature “created” all of Vermont’s cities and towns, therefore it has the authority to approve or reject any charter changes that local voters might propose.

Right now there are roughly 80 communities in Vermont that have these “governance charters,” so they must petition the Legislature to support any local charter changes.

Critics of this current system — many in the Vermont League of Cities and Towns — argue that while it appears that Vermont has a system of direct democracy though votes on Town Meeting Day, the state actually has one of the most centralized governments in the country because of this legislative oversight of local issues.

Beyond Vermont, the historical precedent that allows for state review of town charters goes back to nineteenth-century Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice John Forrest Dillon (not to be confused with present-day VPR reporter John Dillon).

In an 1868 decision, Dillon wrote that in some states “municipal corporations owe their origin to, and derive their powers and rights wholly from, the legislature.” That's the case here in Vermont.

Dillon's decision went on to say, speaking of a General Assembly in these states: “As it creates, so may it destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control.”

In its broadest sense, the Legislature must give its approval to locally supported charter changes. And though rare, the Legislature could also change a town charter on its own without having a change under consideration.

When a town says yes, but the state says no

There have been instances where lawmakers voted against the adoption of a locally approved town charter. For example, Burlington passed some gun control ordinances in recent decades – but since they didn’t have the support in the Legislature, they were never passed.

Let’s look at three charter changes that have recently been approved by voters in Montpelier that will come in front of state lawmakers for consideration:

  1. A ban on single-use plastic bags: Lawmakers will have to deicde if they want to approve these bans on a town-by-town basis, or put these local initiatives on hold until they consider a statewide ban.
  2. Allow non-citizens to vote in a city election: This decision would apply to people who are here legally and pay taxes. The question remains if it is just a local issue or one that should be debated at the state level.
  3. Give the City Council the authority to implement energy efficiency standards: This provision would allow the council to set that standard for all homes, rental units and businesses. But it's vague, which some people feel could be a problem.

If the state doesn't approve the town charter change... well, there's not a whole lot the town can do.

It would likely take a case to be decided by the Vermont Supreme Court to overturn this current practice, but it could be hard for an individual town to convince the Supreme Court to take this action.

Considering that, it's not likely that there will be a judicial ruling to change the current situation. Instead it might require a constitutional amendment to give towns complete control over their charter changes in the future.

Efforts to change this system

But speaking of potential changes, there is a bill sponsored by Windham Sen. Jeanette White, chair of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, that would set up a special pilot program involving 10 towns at the outset.

It would create a Municipal Self-Governance Commission where all locally approved charter changes would come for review and approval. The commission would then send its recommendations to the Legislature for its consideration.

Backers believe that in most cases, the full Legislature would follow the opinion of the commission and that the process will be much less “political.”

The bottom line is that lawmakers would still have the final say over proposed charter changes in local communities. Backers believe though that if this temporary program is successful, then perhaps in a few years the recommendations of the Municipal Self-Governance Commission will be the final word.

At this point, the committee hasn’t taken a lot of testimony on the legislation. However it will likely get a solid review since White, the committee chair, is the lead sponsor of the bill and it also doesn’t call for a dramatic immediate change.