ESSEX, Vt. (WCAX) A question on whether to expand the Essex Select Board will appear on the March 2020 Town Meeting Day ballot after residents petitioned against ‘lopsided representation.’
The ‘Fair Representation Charter Change’ seeks to add another member to the current five-member board. It would also ensure that there’s an even number of representatives from the Town of Essex and the Village of Essex Junction.
Essex residents Irene Wrenner and Ken Signorello are spearheading ‘Fairness First.’ They argue that the current five-member system favors people who live in the village and disadvantages those living in the town.
“Right now when we attend meetings, it feels to me like I'm going to a hockey game in which one team has the puck, they have a power play and that lasts for the whole game,” said Wrenner. “And you should have referees and you should have rules and you should follow them and right now I don’t think we have that type of situation. It feels very unfair and very lopsided.”
Signorello questions whether elected officials who live in the village fully understand the issues faced by people living in the town, and if they can impartially represent them.
“They say they do and I believe in their hearts, they want to. But saying is one thing. It’s the actions that really make a difference and from the actions we’re noticing, we feel as if the representation is a bit biased,” said Signorello. “Folks in the village are worried about having their sidewalks plowed by 8 o’clock in the morning. Folks way outside the village are worried about getting down their driveway. It’s a very different lifestyle.”
Wrenner and Signorello started a petition and got 1,089 signatures, which is enough support to put it on the ballot.
Residents Ray and Gail Konopka say they’re on board.
"I think it's good to have three and three. Three from each district,” said Gail.
Ray agreed that system would “help against any one side of the district being underrepresented or over-represented.”
WCAX News asked Select Board Chair Elaine Haney for her response to the petition. She says the board has a lot of questions and has solicited legal guidance.
“We are consulting with our attorney to find out if this format they’re requesting is something we can actually do. What do you do in the event of a tie? We consulted with the Secretary of State’s office and with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and to our knowledge and our research, there are no boards in Vermont-- municipal boards in Vermont-- that have an even number so we’re not sure how to proceed there,” Haney said. “How would you transfer from the current board of five members elected at-large to an evenly-split board elected in that way? There’s no information from the petitioners about how that would happen.”
Haney denies any bias on the board and says representatives are dedicated to all of their constituents regardless of where they live.
“When you are elected at-large, you must take an oath to represent your entire community no matter where they live. That’s what we do here,” Haney said. “I have never been a situation where a town outside the village pitted himself or herself against a village resident or board member. I’ve never seen it happen in the history that I’ve been here.”
Voters will get a chance to weigh in at a public hearing on Monday at Essex High School at 7 p.m.