After a contentious hearing that featured raised voices and a new (and often used) gavel in the hands of the board chair, the Waitsfield Select Board opted not to officially accept a petition from voters requesting a new vote on town offices until legal questions about the wording of the petition article can be clarified.
At Town Meeting last month, voters defeated a proposal to build new town offices on a parcel of land in the village known as the Farm Stand parcel. In response, town residents collected the requisite number of signatures needed to require the select board to hold a vote on an article that calls for voters to affirm a desire for town offices to be in the village and then asks voters to choose one of two sites for town offices.
By state statute when voters petition for a bond vote the select board has 15 days to set a date for the vote and begin the public warning/hearing process. At issue for several members of the select board was the wording of the petition article which calls for first a yes/no vote and then the selection of a site.
At the select board's April 8 meeting, board member Logan Cooke wanted to know if the wording was legal and was told by town administrator Valerie Capels that the town's attorney had vetted it and suggested the addition of "yes/no" to the site selection part of the ballot.
Select board member Chris Pierson said that the first section of the ballot, which mentions that the town can apply for a $750,000 community block grant, was steering voters towards one of the two sites.
John Reilly, who spearheaded the petition effort, said that the language of the ballot had been reviewed by the Vermont secretary of state's office which said it was okay.
Capels said she also talked to the secretary of state's office and heard it was acceptable language with the addition of the yes/no option on the site choice.
Village resident Kirsten Siebert said that she had also talked to the secretary of state's office about the original wording of the ballot and was told it was not legal because it does not have a clear answer.
"Legally, we have to bring this forward," Cooke said.
"How can any of the signatures be legal if the wording is not?" asked board member Scott Kingsbury.
"So we have a legal petition and you're saying the wording is not legal," board member Bill Parker asked.
"There's no yes or no," Cooke said. "You could get people voting yes to the first part, the request for up to $1.3 million and then down below on the site selection, people voting for the church at $2.1 million and we'd have the church but not enough money.
The two proposed sites are the Farm Stand parcel at a cost of $1.3 million and the former Methodist Church in the village at a cost of $2.1 million. Both of those costs could be reduced by a $750,000 community block grant which the town applied for this week.
At several points during the discussion of the petition the meeting became chaotic with board members talking over each other, members of the public jockeying to be heard and, finally, board chair Paul Hartshorn gaveling the meeting back to order.
"We have to solve this and not break any laws," Hartshorn said.
"It sounds like laws have already been broken," Kingsbury noted.
"I don't see how this article can go out to voters," Cooke said.
Hartshorn reminded the board that it was legally obligated to follow state statute regarding the petition and said, "This isn't our option. We can't change it."
Town administrator Capels clarified that the town cannot make substantive changes to the wording of the petitioned article but could make minor clarifications such as the "yes/no" language in the site selection portion, per the suggestion of the Secretary of State's office.
"So you're saying that the change of adding yes/no to the second section makes it legal? Even if the lawyers tell us this is legal, I'd still feel uncomfortable putting this out for a bond vote," Cooke said.
"I don't know what choice you have," Capels responded.
Next ensued a chaotic discussion of how ballots could and would be counted that ended with the chair gaveling the meeting back to order.
"I think we need to talk to an attorney and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns," said board member Chris Pierson.
"But they've said it's legal," Cooke responded.
"It's legal," Reilly said.
Cooke made a motion to defer acceptance of the petition until the town had consulted with an attorney on the matter. Kingsbury asked that that attorney not be the regular town bond attorney who had already talked to petitioners about the language of the petition and proposed article.
Siebert asked about the advice already solicited from the town's attorney and wanted to know to whom it had been given.
"It was given to me," Capels said, "and he said it was legal."
"So we have our answer. This is legal," Cooke said.
"We have to go deeper," Pierson said.
"I think this is unfair. Accept this and then go get your questions answered," Reilly responded.
"We have a petition that we're told is legal and we have to bring it to voters. But we have to approve it. I don't want to put my signature on it," Cooke said.
Capels said the select board did not have to approve the petition or the bond but only approve the legal warning for the upcoming vote.
"We have to bring it to the voters, but can we voice our concerns? I think we owe it to the voters to bring them something they can understand. I can't believe it can't be written better. Why can't we make it better?" Parker asked.
"If we accept the petition, that gives us the option to apply for the block grant and we have 15 days to have our legal questions answered," Hartshorn said.
"We don't accept the petition," Cooke persisted.
"That's a mistake. You're wrong," Reilly said.
"He's holding an ax over our heads," said resident Pete Reynells.
"I'm not holding an ax. I want the grant item understood when people vote. That grant is a big deal," Reilly said.
Cooke said he was withdrawing his motion to defer acceptance pending legal review and making a new motion to approve the petition but not the proposed ballot item.
Capels told him they could not be separated legally.
Cooke reverted to his previous motion which he, Kingsbury and Pierson supported while Hartshorn and Parker opposed it.