What is the selectboard’s job?

This post is part of a series of posts on “Learning about town government” in my town of Cambridge, Vermont. Please see the link for context, a disclaimer, and a list of posts in this series.

This post is about the job of the selectboard.

First, recall that the Town of Cambridge includes two incorporated villages – the Village of Cambridge and the Village of Jeffersonville. The selectboard is part of town government. Each village has its own board of trustees which is separate from the town selectboard.

For reference, the population of the Town of Cambridge was 3,659 in the 2010 census. That number includes 236 in the Village of Cambridge and 729 in Jeffersonville.

The Vermont Secretary of State’s website says the selectboard is responsible for:

General supervision and control over town; enacts ordinances, regulations, and policies for town; oversees town property and personnel; prepares, presents and manages budget; and oversees roads, including laying out, discontinuing, and reclassifying roads. … Should know the town well, be able to understand all sides of complex issues, and have very thick skin.

Indeed. Let’s break that down into a few categories of issues that have come before the selectboard in the time that I have been on the board:

  • Roads
  • Rivers
  • Infrastructure
  • Finances
  • People

There’s plenty more, but that’s enough to get started.

Roads: The town is responsible for 70 miles of town roads. The town highway department works closely with the state, which is responsible for an additional 29 miles of state roads in the town. The Vermont Agency of Transportation has detailed town highway maps here.

Rivers: The Lamoille River runs through Cambridge, and two significant tributaries flow into the Lamoille River within the boundaries of the town: the Seymour River in the Village of Cambridge and the Brewster River in Jeffersonville. Town government deals with rivers for many reasons: flooding, erosion, drainage, runoff, the occasional mud slide, and recreation. Many issues involve interactions between rivers and roads.

Infrastructure: The Town of Cambridge owns the Town Hall pictured above, a town garage, fire station, rescue squad building, various other pieces of land without buildings, and several cemeteries. Plus highway, fire, and rescue vehicles and equipment.

The town does not own any schools. In present-day Vermont, schools are the responsibility of school districts, which are distinct municipal entities separate from towns. School governance in Vermont is a complicated subject which I will generally avoid in this series of posts about town government.

Finances: The selectboard proposes the town budget for action by the voters at the annual town meeting on the first Tuesday in March. The selectboard authorizes the annual property tax rate based on the approved budget. The selectboard authorizes all disbursements of town funds throughout the year. The selectboard is involved in managing grants, which provide a portion of the town’s revenue. Cambridge operates on a calendar year. Some towns in Vermont operate on a fiscal year ending June 30, the same as the state.

People: The most important part of any job is working with people. The selectboard does not do any of the above tasks by itself. The selectboard works with numerous other elected officials in town, such as the town clerk/treasurer, listers, auditors, and many others. The selectboard is responsible for appointing individuals to various town offices including the town health officer, emergency management director, tree warden, and others. The selectboard is responsible for appointing people to several boards, commissions, and committees in town, such as the Development Review Board, Planning Commission, Finance Committee, and others. The selectboard is responsible for hiring and managing town employees in both the town office and the town highway department. New this year, the Town of Cambridge created the position of town administrator. The selectboard is very pleased that Marguerite Ladd started in this position on July 16.

The selectboard also works with people in government outside of the town, including (especially) state government, (occasionally) federal government, and other local governments. There is a surprising variety of other local governments – not only other towns and cities, but also villages, counties, school districts of various types, water and sewer districts, solid waste management districts, fire districts, conservation districts, communications union districts, and undoubtedly more kinds of local governments that I haven’t yet encountered.

Many people are involved in the “machinery of government.” The selectboard works with this “machinery.”

The selectboard also works with people outside of government, in the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. And, not least, the selectboard works with the public whom we serve. The public will have questions, complaints, requests, suggestions, and perhaps even demands. A big part of the job of being a member of the selectboard is knowing who does what, at all levels of government (and outside of government). I’m still learning that.

Where can a selectboard member go for help?

There are many talented and knowledgeable people in Cambridge, and I thank the numerous individuals in town who have helped me, and continue to help me, on my learning curve. The Vermont Secretary of State’s website is useful. In addition, I have found two organizations to be helpful:

First, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. The VLCT provides resources directly to towns (e.g., limited legal consulting) and they also help towns connect with the appropriate resources in state government. The VLCT conducts numerous training sessions and publishes manuals about municipal governance including a Handbook for Vermont Selectboards. Every town in Vermont is a member of the VLCT. Sometimes peers can be the best resource. Whatever question you have, it is likely that someone else in some other Vermont town has had that question, too. The VLCT is a good way to connect with peers.

Second, the regional planning commission. The State of Vermont authorized the creation of RPCs in the late 1960s to assist municipalities with growth and development issues. RPCs can provide technical assistance with studies and projects, assist with grant management, and help towns connect with appropriate state resources. The Town of Cambridge works with the Lamoille County Planning Commission.

At the next annual town meeting on March 5, 2019, the Cambridge selectboard will be expanded from 3 members to 5 members. Are you thinking about running for election to the selectboard? Are you a voter wondering who to vote for, or who you could encourage to run? If so, I hope this post has been helpful. Two closing thoughts:

  • Being on the selectboard takes more time than I expected. Selectboard members should plan on spending a significant amount of time on town matters, much more than just two regular selectboard meetings a month.
  • A good selectboard should include members who, between them, have expertise in all of the areas listed above: roads, rivers, infrastructure, finances, and people.

Click here to go to the initial post in this series: “Learning about town government.”

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