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.
The 2019 annual report for the Town of Cambridge lists two elected agents of the town (page 19): Agent to Convey Real Estate and Agent to Prosecute & Defend.
What are these positions in town government?
Well, the reason for writing this post is that the Legislature has eliminated both positions. Act 84 of 2020 removed all references to these positions in state law effective July 1, 2020.
OK, what were these positions in town government?
The Vermont Secretary of State provides a handy list of Local Office Descriptions, and it has not yet been updated for Act 84. Here is what it says:
Agent to Convey Real Estate. Executes deeds on behalf of the town. 24 V.S.A. § 1061
Town Agent. The town agent used to prosecute and defend suits. The selectboard now has that authority. Thus, the town agent’s duty consists merely of assisting when litigation is in progress, at the request of the selectboard. (Generally not a very active position.) 17 V.S.A. § 2646(11)
Regarding the conveyance of real estate, Act 84 provides that the selectboard shall designate an agent for that purpose when needed, and record such designation in the land records. Typically such an agent will be a member of the selectboard. As a practical matter, it is not often that the town needs such an agent, because it is not often that the town conveys real estate.
Regarding the town agent to prosecute and defend suits, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns wrote the following in their 2011 Handbook for Vermont Selectboards, page 43:
The town agent plays a limited role in town government. Although statute provides that an agent to prosecute and defend suits must be elected, no statute provides the agent with any independent authority to act. In fact, case law makes it clear that the town agent has no authority to originate suits in favor of the town or to settle or compromise suits in which the town has an interest, but that the agent’s duty consists merely of assisting when litigation is in progress. Cabot v. Britt, 36 Vt. 349 (1863); Clay v. Wright, 44 Vt. 538 (1872). In addition, the fact that a town agent is elected does not remove the authority of the selectboard to hire an attorney to represent the town, to conduct litigation and to settle suits on behalf of the town. Accordingly, many towns do not have active town agents, and those that do often limit the agent’s activities to picking an attorney for the town or acting as a liaison between the selectboard and the town attorney in particular matters.
It is amusing to note that it took the Legislature more more than 150 years to clean up an issue in state law that the courts first identified in 1863 and again in 1872.
Act 84 of 2020 is a welcome improvement. It simplifies town government in a good way. Kudos to the Legislature.
Click here to go to the initial post in this series: “Learning about town government.”