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St. Johnsbury Voters May Get Power To Recall Town Officials

St. Johnsbury voters will decide at town meeting in March whether or not they should be able to recall elected officials.  Supporters say the charter change would make leaders more responsive to constituents. But some worry that the ability to unseat officers puts power in the hands of too few voters, and could deepen the turmoil that’s stirred up town politics for the last few years.   

St. Johnsbury has been mired in controversy and litigation as financial problems and the dismissal of the town manager have riled up residents and made headlines. In the town election last March, two controversial select board incumbents were replaced. But Tom Moore, one of the new board members, wants to make it possible for town officials to be removed by voters even if they have not been defeated, or served a full term.

“So that’s where the petition came about for recall,  so if somebody was in for a long period of time and they really ticked off a lot of people, they could be ousted,” Moore said.

Moore says a lot of people were upset with the former select board for taking more than a year to fill the town manager vacancy, and for letting a deficit mount up. While he believes  the new select board is an improvement, he still thinks voters should be able  to recall officials who perform poorly. If the charter is amended, a petition signed by 35 per cent of  the number of registered voters who cast ballots in the most recent annual election would start the recall process.

“After the process is started the people who are opposed to whoever they are trying to recall and that person get to have a public meeting and sit down and talk in public about why they did what they did and why the people want to get them out,” Moore said.

At a follow-up meeting, voters would decide by Australian ballot whether to recall targeted town officers. In St. Johnsbury, as few as 400 petitioners could force a special election at which 2/3 of the those who cast ballots could remove  an official. Jim Rust, who has been on the select board for five years, says that threshold of votes is too low.

“That means that you could potentially, with a well orchestrated campaign, put the town of St. Johnsbury in perpetual re-election mode.”

Rust says there are already enough chances to replace select board members, because three are up for re-election every year. He worries that a recall campaign could make St. Johnsbury’s already tumultuous politics more dysfunctional, and also discourage qualified candidates from seeking office in a field that is already too thin.

“There’s no real challengers coming on to challenge the select board,” Rust said.

He thinks that's because would-be candidates fear getting removed before they can make a positive difference and tackle thorny issues.

If the recall amendment is adopted, St. Johnsbury will join a small minority statewide with similar charter provisions. according to the of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Still, says VLCT Executive Director Steven Jeffrey, if St. Johnsbury chooses that route he expects the state legislature, which must give approval, would go along.

The first of two informational meetings about the proposed change is scheduled for January 27.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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