Nearly six months ago, village residents in Johnson directed trustees to enter discussions with town officials about a future merger of the town and village.
In the time since, there has been no public discussion among trustees on a merger, but the Johnson Selectboard pushed for discussion of the issue at a recent joint meeting with village trustees.
Though both parties said they wanted to update voters by the next town meeting in March 2022, there still isn’t an exact agreement on when those talks should occur.
At a Sept. 22 joint meeting, selectboard member Mike Dunham broached the subject, according to the minutes, saying that he understood the village was working to replace its manager, but that an overwhelming number of voters wanted the town and village to discuss the merger issue.
Dunham said he didn’t want to face questions at the next town meeting and pushed for the trustees to form a committee of some kind, calling whether the trustees wanted to merge or not “immaterial.”
Trustees chair William Jennison agreed with Dunham, but also said he believed the village’s vote simply instructed the trustees and the board to continue discussing issues surrounding a merger. Jennison also expressed concern about the cost of bringing on an outside consultant to assist with the process.
Both Dunham and Jennison dismissed the inconclusive study published in February by Kent Gardner and the consulting firm CGR. The report noted that since there were none of the material issues that usually drive dissolution of a village, the village and town of Johnson would have to work together to form something new and unique.
In the study, Gardner said a merger would be impractical and did not recommend concrete steps for the town and village to take. He noted that the town and village do not duplicate many of their services — typically a driving force to merge municipalities — though he did note a merger would address an “unfortunate competitive dynamic that some residents find troubling.”
Dunham said he was “not happy” with the report and Jennison called it “not great.”
After some back and forth about resuming merger talks in January or February stalled, selectboard member Beth Foy gently pushed the village to hold its own working groups before January and Jennison agreed to discuss the matter at the next meeting.
Village manager question
“The village has got a lot of things on its plate right now,” Eric Osgood, Johnson Selectboard chair said. “They’re just not prepared at this time to start those discussions yet. Basically, their administrator resigned. So, until they get the administrator on board and up to speed, I wouldn’t expect our discussions to go anywhere.”
Former Johnson village manager Meredith Birkett resigned in June, but since that time has continued to work for the town as a consultant, handling much of the same duties in a reduced capacity.
Birkett, who resigned because she felt “it was the right time for her to move on,” has continued to advise on village matters, including drafting a scope of work and the hiring of a consultant to address needed repairs to the village garage.
“While I am working as a consultant for the village on specific projects, I’m not involved at all at this point with the merger topic,” Birkett said in an email. “It is in the trustees’ hands how the merger topic will move forward and be incorporated into the new village manager’s duties.”
Trustees met on Sept. 29 in executive session to discuss a new potential village manager, though no new hire has been announced.
Prior to the selectboard forcing the merger question at its joint meeting, there has been no discussion among trustees concerning a merger between the town and village at public meetings or through email.
According to a public records request filed with village clerk and treasurer Rosemary Audibert, trustee Ken Tourangeau, had not “sent or seen any merger emails.”
B.J. Putvain also said he hadn’t “seen any merger emails come out.” Trustees chair William Jennison called Audibert and, according to her, told her he had not received or sent any emails.
Trustees Diane Lehoullier and Steven Hatfield did not respond to the public records request.
According to Jenny Prosser, general counsel at the Vermont Secretary of State’s office, the advisory and nonbinding nature of village residents’ vote means there is no law compelling trustees to act on the matter.
“Whether a legislative body is bound to act pursuant to a town-wide vote depends, generally speaking, on both the text of the article in question and any statutory authority of the voters that exists in support of that article,” she said. “The voters may only bind the town if the law gives the voters the power to decide the question put before them; otherwise, a vote would typically be considered advisory in nature.”
From Osgood’s perspective, the slow-going nature of the merger discussions is not terribly concerning.
“We’ve had a village for 125 years,” he said. “A couple more years is not gonna make a big difference.”