It’s been almost eight months now since we found out a provision of the charter was unconstitutional.

It’s not a trivial, little-used portion, either. We only found out the ban on political activity by city police and firefighters was unconstitutional because a city police commander was reprimanded for violating it. Everybody had forgotten that some 27 years earlier, the city lost a lawsuit over that portion of the charter, which a federal judge called so broad as to violate city employees’ first amendment rights.

Two months after this ruling was brought back to public consciousness, the Charter and Ordinance Committee met on the subject and took no action. No further meetings have been scheduled and I have not, in the interim, heard a single board member express concern that the charter still has unconstitutional provisions in it.

The board did, however, vote this week to discuss whether the high school’s mascot needs to be enshrined in the city charter.

Will of the people

I made a face on Monday when, in response to a claim such a charter change would never clear the Legislature, Alderwoman Sharon Davis claimed that the Legislature typically followed the will of the local voters who send proposed charter changes to Montpelier. I could have sworn I remembered a few charter changes that Rutland’s voters enthusiastically endorsed only to see them die in the State House.

I couldn’t find any in my first spin through the archives after the meeting, but eventually tracked them down with the help of folks who have better memories of the events in question.

Back in 2010, Rutland voters approved charter changes that created term limits and required city employees to pay 20% of their health insurance. I also found one from around 2000 involving gun control. All died in the Legislature.

There were also Constitutional questions regarding all of them, according to contemporary coverage, so I wouldn’t say they invalidate Davis’ claim. And it shows that somebody somewhere cares whether the city charter is constitutional.

Milestones

I haven’t gone through and checked to make absolutely sure, but the newly confirmed Whitney Marsh appears to be the first woman to serve as Rutland’s public works commissioner.

Earlier this week, former Alderman Ed Larson decided to mark the occasion with a Facebook post regarding the city’s first African American public works commissioner.

Lyman Harrison Styles Jr. was commissioner and city engineer in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Larson said he lived in Proctor during his tenure and died in the city of Baltimore in 2008.

Context

Larson posted about Styles in the “You’re from Rutland, VT if ...” Facebook group, and the first response took me by surprise not just by objecting to the post, but for the reason behind the objection as well.

The post declared that “Vermont is not racist” and upbraided Larson for trying to prove it wasn’t by “clarifying a color” which disrespected “Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy to judge a man by his character, not by the color of his skin.”

I will leave to others with stronger historical credentials than mine to grapple with whether Dr. King likely would have felt his legacy was being disrespected by people recognizing the accomplishments of African Americans. Instead, I brought this up because it is far from the first time of late that I have seen one of my fellow Caucasians invoking the most famous line from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in a way that makes me wonder just how much of Dr. King’s writings they have read.

I’m nothing resembling a King scholar myself, so the suggestion I’m about to make is fairly elementary. It is easy enough to Google up “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” so give it a read if you haven’t already — or if the college class you read it for was so long ago that you don’t really remember it. You might be surprised by how relevant large portions of it still are, and how complex an argument it makes.

Correction

I have some egg on my face as I write this, because I misquoted Shelley Lutz of the Pine Hill partnership as saying any bears in the vicinity of Pine Hill Park were probably around the Carriage Trail because of the “beaches.”

She was referring, though, to “beeches,” as in the beech trees that produce the beechnuts bears like so much and not the water’s edge areas of the ponds up there, where I thought the bears would be looking for a drink or something.

As much as I’d like to blame it on a typo, it wasn’t, so I figure proper penance is to put the correction here where you can all have a good laugh at my expense.

Calendar

Monday, the Public Works Committee meets at 5:30 p.m. to discuss street line striping. There’s also a police commission meeting at 6 p.m. Monday.

Tuesday, the Pension Board meets at 6 p.m. for a pension disability hearing to be held in executive session.

Thursday, the Board of Civil Authority meets at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the tax appeal process.

gordon.dritschilo

@rutlandherald.com

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City Reporter

Gordon has been a reporter for the Rutland Herald for nearly 20 years. A Castleton State College graduate, he's covered beats from the West county to the city, cops and courts and everything in between.

(1) comment

JeffW

Owing to my former employment I suffer from Local News Abuse Disorder, and as such immediately jump to Gordon Dritschilo’ column every Saturday morning. Gordon does excellent work reporting Rutland City government, and adds valuable insight and perspective in his weekly column. There were a couple of errors of omission in his most recent effort, however.

First, in 1985-86 Rutland had a female Commissioner of Public Works.

The second omission is potentially significant today. Just over twenty years ago Rutland voters approved a charter amendment that would have created a school choice voucher program for Rutland City students and their families. Despite earning 55 percent of the popular vote, the Legislature refused to allow the amendment to go forward.

One of the arguments used to deny the voter-approved plan was that it would require the state to fund education at religiously-affiliated schools like MSJ, the Rutland Area Christian School, and Christ the King. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states cannot deny the use of such funds to students attending parochial schools because they are affiliated with a church or include religious instruction. There are currently active lawsuits under way in Vermont to force this state to comply with that ruling.

Because City voters have never rescinded the charter amendment, it is still available for the Legislature to enact. Now that the major objection to legislative approval has been settled by the Supreme Court, perhaps the amendment can finally be taken up and adopted.

An interesting footnote to this is Rutland’s favorable 1999 school choice vote was the first time such a ‘binding’ initiative won approval at the polls anywhere in the U.S.

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