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Waitsfield Select Board rejects town office petition

After another contentious meeting that featured shouting, the gavel and acrimony, the Waitsfield Select Board rejected a petition calling for voting on the issue of new town offices but then asked its attorney to rewrite the language of the proposed ballot item in a way that was legal and logical.

The April 15 meeting began with a moment of silence to honor the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and then quickly changed as members of the select board and a roomful of citizens argued back and forth for three hours.

Last week, town attorney Joe McLean was asked by the board to review the language of a petition and ballot calling for the town to vote on: A) whether or not town offices should be built; and B) which of two sites should be chosen. The two sites and estimated costs are the Farm Stand parcel ($1.3 million) or the former Methodist Church ($2.1 million). The original ballot included language that mentioned that costs could be offset for either project if the town is awarded a federal grant for $750,000 to move its town offices away from a flood-prone area.

At Town Meeting in March, voters rejected a ballot item that called for building new town offices on the Farm Stand parcel for $1.6 million. Three weeks later town residents presented the select board with a petition signed by 10 percent of the town's registered voters. The select board is legally obligated to act, unless it rejects the petition.

At this week's hearing McLean told the board that upon review he found the language of the petition and proposed ballot "deficient in several respects."

"As a board, I think you'd be justified in rejecting the petition. The question is, if you do so, what options are available to you? There are a number of choices: 1. Do nothing; 2. Come forward with a select board motion with a bond article that is consistent with the board's preferences for a site and bond vote amount; or 3. Attempt to develop a bond article that presents the two site choices and captures the spirit of what the petition was attempting to do, but do so with different language," McLean said, before presenting some options for how the board could follow the third option.

Board member Chris Pierson voiced concerns over the fact that McLean's draft of alternate wording did not use the words "yes" or "no" in terms of balloting options and board member Bill Parker said that McLean's wording made sense and was understandable for the voter.

"I'd be happy to see this go forward if the petitioners are happy," Parker said.

"I have no concerns with how this is written, but I will not adopt it," Pierson said.

Board member Scott Kingsbury asked that the board go into closed-door executive session before adopting anything, and when Parker asked the reason for executive session, Pierson responded, "Personnel issues as they relate to this."

Paul Hartshorn, board chair, rebuffed the attempt to go into executive session pointing out that the reason that this week's special meeting of the board was called was to deal with the issue of the petition.

Town resident Neil Johnson asked if the petition came from the task force at the direction of the select board or whether it was a private effort. Board member Logan Cooke replied that the select board had nothing to do with the petition.

Brian Shupe, one of those who worked on the petition, noted that the group who created the petition did so in response to what they had heard from townspeople about why the Town Meeting bond vote failed; namely, that the project was too big and too expensive. Accordingly, this group worked to rescale both the proposal for the Farm Stand and the Methodist Church, shaving square feet, a second floor and about $300,000 from both project costs.

"Most people in town want to see new town offices. But people feel they are being force fed these options and they felt that way about the water project as well," said resident Neil Johnson, who circulated his own survey calling for voters to choose between six potential town office sites.

Village resident Kirsten Siebert said that the petition did not have the support of the people who favored the Methodist Church over the Farm Stand.

"It was put on the petitioner's ballot as a sacrificial lamb. The way it is worded the church does not stand a fair chance and I object to it and the manipulative nature of the question," Siebert said.

Parker said that his personal preference was for the town to lease space but said that his personal opinion did not obviate the rights of the petitioners.

"The task force objective was to find something economically feasible for the town. The town has between $640,000 and a million dollars in debt for the failed big pipe sewer that is about to come down. The town has 90 water system users and the previous select board was going to dump a million dollars worth of fire protection and water storage on all the voters. The voters have spoken," Pierson said, leading to a heated exchange with Parker.

"You've just composed at least two complete fallacies. The fact that a third of the water system users are paying and that the previous select board was going to foist the fire protection costs of $1.5 million on the voters. Where'd you get that?" Parker asked.

"I got it from Charlie Hosford at the forum," Pierson said, referring to former select board member Charlie Hosford who was not re-elected at Town Meeting.

"You'd better revisit that. That's total crap, excuse my French, You'd better check your facts because you scare people and you get people worked up over stuff that's wrong and you make us look like idiots," Parker said.

"He stated it, not me," Pierson reiterated.

"Check your facts. I'm getting tired of this," Parker responded.

Hartshorn ended the discussion.

Kingsbury changed the topic and suggested that the town revisit the idea of building town offices on the land between the Wait House and the fire station and Pierson asked the board again to go into executive session to discuss a personnel matter.

"This is not a personnel issue; it's about the language of a bond issue. You can't create a red herring by saying that. I think the townspeople need a better explanation before this board goes into executive session," said resident Wayne Davies.

"I agree that the executive session issue relates to the petition and I support it," Kingsbury said.

"Mr. Chairman," Parker said, addressing Hartshorn, "I thought the reason for this special meeting was to have some discussion about the petition that was brought forward but was not accepted/rejected. It was tabled within our 15-day period to bring it forward for public discussion. That's why we're here to talk about petitions, not fiscal responsibility. Do we have a petition that is acceptable or not?"

Hartshorn said he did not think executive session was appropriate.

Board members then worked their way through several motions with Kingsbury and Pierson voting as a block, Cooke and Parker voting as a block and Hartshorn breaking the tie by voting with Cooke and Parker.

Pierson made a motion to reject the petition which led to a heated discussion about the actions of past select boards vis a vis petitions.

"You're asking this board to do one of the things that both of you guys railed on the previous select board for doing – rejecting petitions and changing things out of hand from what the petitioners were requesting," Parker said to Pierson and Kingsbury.

Kingsbury and Pierson, two new members of the select board, were vocal in their opposition to the select board rejecting a petition calling for voters to decide whether the town should spend $20,000 to purchase the former Birke Photography Studio land on Bridge Street. "You can't have it both way guys," Parker said.

"Bill, we got elected, the bond vote got denied," Pierson said.

"So you got elected and you turn on a dime and go against the very things you asked people to vote you in for?" Parker responded.

Hartshorn urged the board to shorten it up and after voting to reject the petition the board voted to work with McLean to put forth its own version of the petition language and to do so by the end of the 15-day period the town has to respond.

After further discussion of the logic and statistical possibilities of asking voters: a) whether they want to spend a maximum of $2.1 million for new town offices, then b) which of two sites with their estimated costs they would prefer, the board decided to revert to the original petitioners' language and resolved to ask McLean to try to fix that language.

The meeting can be seen on Waitsfield Cable on Mad River Valley Television or at the Mad River Valley Television website, mrvtv.com.

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