State rejects charter amendments
By STEPHANIE M. PETERS STAFF WRITER | April 03,2010
The House's Government Operations Committee unanimously voted "no" Friday morning to three Rutland City charter amendments overwhelmingly passed by voters on Town Meeting Day.
The vote effectively kills all three amendments, which called for 10-year term limits for the city's mayor and aldermen and for all municipal and school employees to begin paying 20 percent of their health care premiums and 100 percent of all plan "enhancements."
After hearing testimony this week from the assistant attorney general and legislative council, Chairwoman Donna Sweaney said it was the 11-member committee's opinion that all three proposals pose questions of legality.
"In discussion, (the committee) felt there were real extenuating circumstances around these three changes," Sweaney said. "We generally support what the communities ask for and want, but part of our charge as a Legislature when reviewing these is to look at their constitutionality."
Sweaney said there was little question of how the committee would vote on term limits after hearing from Assistant Attorney General Michael McShane on Tuesday.
"In Vermont, everyone has a right to run for office whenever they want to run for office," she said. "That seemed really clear-cut."
There are no cities or towns in Vermont that impose term limits on their local officials. In 1983, Brattleboro voters passed a charter amendment that sought to make its local officials ineligible for office after nine consecutive years or two consecutive terms in office. Asked to weigh in on the constitutionality of that change in January 1984, then-Assistant Attorney General Marilyn Skoglund, who now serves on the Vermont Supreme Court, issued a written opinion stating term limits were unconstitutional.
Told of the Government Operations Committee's decision Friday, Alderwoman Sharon Davis said she was happy to hear the news. Davis is now in her 19th year on the Board of Aldermen.
"I think (the decision) goes to the crux of the fact that Rutland Taxpayers United do not do their homework prior to putting questions on the ballot and don't look at the unintended consequences," she said of the group that drafted the amendments.
On the issue of mandating 20 percent contributions to public employees' health care premium costs, Sweaney said her committee had two concerns, the greatest among them being that changing the conditions of existing contracts would be in violation of the Vermont State Labor Relations Act.
"The thought was (approving this would set a precedent that) would put us in the middle of negotiation issues and bargaining issues throughout the state," she said. "That's a whole other issue that's deserving of a lot more discussion than this."
She said the committee also found the language requiring employees to pay 100 percent of all "enhancements" to be vague and confusing. Although the committee could have altered the amendment language so that it wasn't effective immediately, but applicable to future contracts, Sweaney said the committee's added uneasiness about the "enhancement" language prompted them to simply vote it down.
Tom Franzoni, chairman of the Department of Public Works and Clerical Workers' chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said Friday afternoon he was happy with the decision to leave health care as part of the negotiation process.
"We're happy, but we also understand what the economic times are and that city residents are looking for us to step up," he said. "That's what we're going to try to do in our next negotiation. … We were waiting for this ruling so we could sit down with the mayor and city attorney. We're on the doorstep."
Franzoni, who testified before the committee Thursday, said his union's contract will expire on July 1. Currently, most of the city's unions pay 10 percent of their health care premiums. Only members of the Police Department's union do not pay toward their health care.
"We're not opposed to paying more and we want to, it's just the process of how we go about it," he said. "In hindsight, maybe 15 years ago we should have done the opposite of what we did and take larger raises in exchange for higher health care premiums. … It isn't like we've been playing hardball on where we are on our insurance. We do recognize that the rest of the city is probably paying more, and that many people don't have insurance."
Franzoni also stressed that each of the city's unions donates its time and effort, as well as fundraising abilities, for the community.
Rep. Steve Howard, a Rutland Democrat who testified against the amendments Thursday, said it was difficult for anyone in the Legislature to support the amendments given the legal opinions the committee received. Howard said Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie even weighed in on the issue by sending the committee a letter stating it was his opinion health care benefits are an issue best left in the collective bargaining process.
"I would advise anyone who wants to put a (charter change) question forward to get legal help," he said. "It's a lot of work and unfortunately it can all be for nothing."
For Dawn Hance, a member of Rutland Taxpayers United who spent a great deal of time collecting signatures last fall to place the amendments on the ballot, the decisions came as no surprise.
"I knew yesterday when I went up to testify yesterday that it was an exercise in futility, but I felt I should listen to the other side," she said. "I thought a lot of the testimony on the other side was very good. I have no animosity toward anyone."