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APSR, 6 (1912)

VILLAGE GOVERNMENT IN NEW ENGLAND

FRANK G. BATES
Indiana University

Throughout the United States there are provided special, though simple, forms of municipal government for villages under the various names of village, borough or town. Oddly enough the notable exceptions to this general practice are to be found in New England, the region which includes three of the most densely populated states in the Union. Moreover, it is in the two most densely populated of these that the least progress has been made toward the development of an orderly system of village government.

At one time the whole area of New England, except certain unorganized tracts in the north, was under town government and so continued until the growth of urban conditions led to city incorporation. In every case incorporation was by special act, and such is the method employed in every case to the present time. The readiness of the town government to assume the functions proper to an urban community not only retarded city incorporation, but prevented, in large measure, the growth of special forms of government for villages. It is not unusual to find towns which include within their limits many square miles of rural territory, providing all or part of its population with fire protection, water, sewers, lights, side-walks, parks and libraries. But there has grown up, sometimes under general laws though more commonly as a result of special legislation, a heterogeneous collection of municipal governments and taxing authorities variously denominated villages, fire, water, lighting, sewer, highway and improvement districts, producing a confusion comparable only to the conditions in England before the municipal reforms of recent date.

With respect to the subject under consideration the New

England states may be arranged in a descending scale beginning with Vermont where a fairly complete system of village government is in operation, and ending with Rhode Island where no general provisions whatever have been made. To such an extent does practice vary that the subject may best be considered by taking up each state separately.

In Vermont, the most nearly rural of the New England states, the incorporation of the larger towns proceeded slowly. Down to 1890 there existed but two cities, and in 1910 there were but six, ranging in population from 1,483 to 20,468. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the state had already begun the practice of incorporating villages by special act, and by 1850, the institution may be considered as having been fully established. Such special acts appear with increasing frequency and at each session of the legislature since 1885 from ten to thirty acts of incorporation or amendments to such acts have been passed. In 1910 there were fifty-six incorporated villages in the state, ranging in population from 42 to 8,098. About one half of these have a population of less than 1,000 persons and in most cases the incorporation has been by special act.

The source of village authority is the village meeting which, besides electing village officers, is a legislative assembly. Among the powers conferred on this meeting are these:—to lay taxes and issue bonds, furnish various public utilities, extend village boundaries, and pass by-laws on many specifically enumerated subjects. In a typical small village the corporation has been authorized to pass by-laws concerning the following subjects:streets, side-walks, parks, police, street-lighting, nuisances, sewers, water supply, markets, building, fire protection, licensing, and certain other minor matters.? Power is given to all villages to borrow money and levy taxes for corporate purposes. The village is also liable for its share of the general assessments for town purposes.

1 Those incorporated before 1850 were Woodstock, 1836; Middlebury, 1845; Castleton, 1847; Rutland, 1847; Bennington, 1849.

: West Glover, Laws 1910, No. 322.

The chief executive authority is vested in a board of from three to seven members usually known as trustees, though in a few instances called “bailiffs." 3 Trustees are usually elected at large, though in certain cases, by and from specific wards, and in one case from wards though by the electors of the whole village. Their term was formerly uniformly for one year but recently there is a tendency toward a board of three or six, one third of whom retire each year..

The presiding officer of the board is the president, elected either by the electors, or by the board from its own number. When elected by the people the president is ordinarily the presiding officer in the village meeting, but when otherwise chosen a moderator chosen by the meeting presides over the deliberations. In case neither moderator nor president is provided the senior trustee presides.' In rare cases the president has been given the veto.10

The trustees are the general executive agents of the village meeting and “have charge of the prudential affairs oil of the village, or the"management of the affairs of the village and the necessary powers for that purpose."'12 They are a highway authority with power to lay out, maintain and close streets and walks. Sometimes they are fire wardens with appropriate powers. Besides the trustees there are usually elected a clerk, treasurer and collector and frequently fire marshal, auditor, water commissioners, chief engineer and prudential committee.

The village was first recognized as an institution in the state in 1819 though it was not then given corporate powers.13

In : Bellows Falls, Laws 1880, No. 201; Readsboro, Laws 1892, No. 125. • Winooski, Laws 1880, No. 219. • Bennington, Laws 1904, No. 231

6 Springfield, Laws 1904, No. 243; Bennington, Laws 1904, No. 231; Essex Junction, Laws 1896, No.158.

; West Glover, Laws 1910, No. 322.

• Windsor, Laws 1884, No. 224; Bennington, Laws 1904, No. 231; Poultney, Laws 1904, No. 241; Concord, Laws 1904, No. 234.

• Newbury, Laws 1896, No. 164.
10 Swanton, Laws 1888, No. 252.
11 Poultney, Laws 1904, No. 241.
12 Waterbury, Laws 1882, No. 205.
13 Laws 1819, c. 20.

1839 the act of 1819 was consolidated with the law governing the formation of fire districts and village meetings were provided for but with the sole power of forming themselves into a fire society.14 The General Statutes of 1863 provided for the first time a general law for incorporating villages, prescribing the form of organization and the functions.15 The habit of special legislation was so firmly fixed that few, if any, villages availed themselves of the privileges of the act. In 1904 a commission was appointed to investigate existing village charters, consider the possibility of a general act for the incorporation of villages and, if expedient, to draw a bill for the purpose.16 The resulting legislation, provided that the selectmen, on petition of a majority of the voters residing in any village of thirty or more houses, may establish a village corporation. All persons eligible to vote in town elections and who have paid taxes are voters of the village. At the village meeting are to be chosen a clerk, treasurer, collector and five trustees to hold office for one year. The corporation in village meeting may vote taxes for village purposes and enact by-laws consistent with state law, particularly with respect to streets, commons, shade trees, slaughter houses, and watch and lighting; restrain animals; regulate building, chimneys, the manufacture and keeping of ashes, powder and combustibles; provide fire protection and libraries, and impose fines not to exceed twenty dollars. The duties of the trustees under this act are to see that the by-laws are executed, appoint police officers, direct prosecutions, and “take care of the affairs of such corporation and perform the duties legally enjoined on them by such corporation.” Apparently the act has had little practical effect and special acts of incorporation have been as frequent as before.

Following the creation of the Public Service Commission the state legislature placed with that body the granting and amendment of village charters.18 Incorporation is granted upon

14 Revised Statutes, 1839, c. 14.
15 General Statutes, 1863, c. 16.
16 Laws 1894, No. 348.
17 Revised Statutes, 1894, c. 142.
18 Laws 1910, No. 115.

petition stating the territory to be included, the form of organization desired, and the functions proposed to be exercised. After public hearing and possible amendment the order of incorporation issues. The enumeration in the law of the powers which may be conferred on the village by the commission includes those usually given in the past, such as the subjects of fire protection, sewers, waterworks, lighting, highways, parks, schools, hospitals, and to raise money by taxation or loans for these purposes.

Amendment to the charters of villages are to be by the commission. This act introduces into American municipal government the novelty of incorporation by a central administrative authority. This step toward central control seems to have been taken as a result of the recognition of the village as a quasi-public body analogous to the public service corporations themselves. It will be a matter of interest to note the influence of this legislation upon the stream of special acts relating to cities and villages hitherto flowing from the legislature. No control of these villages by the commission after their incorporation is contemplated, but by another act villages, along with cities, fire districts, towns and school districts, are required to render annual financial statements to the secretary of state.19

Besides the incorporated villages there have been created in Vermont, as elsewhere in New England, governing authorities even more simple in form and more narrow in function, called fire districts and lighting districts. The fire district, in this state, originated in an act empowering the selectmen, upon petition, to lay out the bounds of villages for the purpose of forming fire societies.20 These societies had no taxing power but might hold property and make by-laws for fire protection. Later, the privilege of forming fire societies was extended to organized villages, 21 and in 1854 a general law for the creation of fire districts was passed.22 This act, with, certain amendments,

19 Laws 1910, No. 11.
3. Laws 1832, No. 18.
» Revised Statutes, 1839, c. 14.
22 Laws 1854, No. 7.

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