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Voters reject Australian ballot, pass school and town budgets

By Lisa Loomis

There is nothing wrong with the memory of Waitsfield voters.  Last year at Town Meeting, after a great deal of discussion, voters OK'd the town spending $50,000 to bury utility conduit on Bridge Street when it is repaved and work done on the covered bridge abutments this year.

During the course of the last year, the select board opted not to pursue that project after learning that it would cost more than anticipated – approximately $400,000. And there were many voters at Town Meeting this year who were upset about that and felt that the select board had disregarded their vote and ignored the wishes of the voters. Some asked why the board had not given voters the option to vote on the matter via Australian ballot.

The underground utilities issue was raised by former select board member Charlie Hosford early in the meeting.

"The $50,000 that voters approved for burying the power last year seems to have been abandoned. We have one opportunity when we do this work on Bridge Street to bury those lines. Why is it that the will of the people last year has been discarded?" Hosford asked.

Board chair Paul Hartshorn said that the cost was so different from what voters approved that the board decided not to go forward. Although discussion moved on to other issues, voters were nowhere close to being done with the issue.

Planning commission chair Steve Shea urged the select board to reconsider its rejection of a $400,000 grant to complete a section of sidewalk on the west side of Route 100 in the village from Valley Players Theater to Farr Lane. The select board explained its concern about that segment of sidewalk resulting in the loss of the sign for Village Grocery.

Select board members said they thought they could have a sidewalk constructed for less than $400,000. Shea asked the moderator for an informal straw poll of the town and moderator Brian Shupe agreed, unless there were objections. There were and the straw poll was not taken.

Board member Bill Parker, whose term expired at Town Meeting, said that the sidewalk that his fellow board members had considered could not be considered apples to apples with the $400,000 proposal.

"If the goal is to do it for cheap, it can be done. But why build important infrastructure for cheap?" Parker asked.

"It seems to me if we're all agreeing that it's an important project to get done, we should do it right. If 90 percent comes from the state, and we have the $40,000 in our conservation fund, we should go forward," said Phil Huffman.

"How could we possibly build a sidewalk on our own for $40,000?" asked Stan Ward.

Board member Logan Cooke said that the sidewalk is not worth putting the VG out of business and explained that the sidewalk could mean the VG would lose its sign. Conveniently, VG owner Troy Kingsbury had just arrived to cast his ballot at that point and was asked about the sidewalk and project.

IMPORTANT ASSET

Kingsbury said he felt the sign and the VG were an important asset in the village cause "people will stop for a gas station" and when they do, they realize that there are other shops and stores to visit. He noted that the state has said that he can pay for a right of way and he could create a canopy and put solar panels on top.

Voters accepted the reports of their town officers and worked through a few articles approving funds for repair of the fire house roof and $20,000 in matching funds to improve the intersection of Main Street and Bridge Street and create a pocket park on Bridge Street.

Then the moderator explained Article 8, which called for allocating $75,000 for covered bridge repairs as well as repairing and replacing Bridge Street culverts, catch basins and a retaining wall while repaving the street.

The issue of underground utilities was back.

"I consider this a once-in-a-lifetime chance we have," Michael Sharkey said.

Phil Huffman urged the select board to recall the support the issue had last year.

"What is the cost to do it all this year?" asked Bev Kehoe.

"$400,000," Cooke said.

"The select board took a vote. It was not unanimous. The decision was to turn down the project rather than bring it back to the voters. It would have to go back to voters to get financial support, which the board thought would not be possible with the timeframe to get it done this summer," Parker said.

Parker told voters that a motion to amend Article 8 could be made from the floor of Town Meeting to change the amount.

"I'd feel uncomfortable making that amendment from this stage, but if there is a strong enough feeling from the voters then it should be put forth as an amendment," Parker said.

And it was. Sheila Ware made the motion to amend Article 7 to add $400,000 to put the utility lines underground and provide money to loan business owners who needed help connecting to the new underground power.

MODERATOR CHALLENGED

Moderator Shupe allowed the amendment and was challenged by three members of the select board, including Scott Kingsbury who said he'd been reading Roberts Rules of Order and felt the amendment was not appropriate because it was not relevant.

"This is not about the select board objections, it's about voters' decision last year not being respected," said one town resident, to applause.

Voters get the final word on whether the amendment is acceptable and voted, via voice vote, to uphold Shupe's ruling.

Liz Laferriere asked why the board had not followed the will of the voters and Kate Williams asked why it had not come back to voters as an Australian ballot article.

"Time is of the essence in getting this done this year. The decision needs to be made now to correct a mistake that was made by not following through on the part of the select board. This is our opportunity to correct that mistake," Andreas Lehner said.

Board member Chris Pierson noted that the $475,000 project was not what was discussed last year and explained that would involve "a bogus pole at the intersection of Main Street and Route 100 and moving one eyesore from your yard to somebody else's yard.

NOT SAME PROJECT

"The decision not to bring it forward was because of the significant increase in cost. It was not the same project," Pierson said.

Neil Johnson called the question and a request was made for a paper ballot. Ballots were collected and names checked off the voter checklist before people went to lunch.

After the school board and budget meeting, voters returned again to Article 8 to learn that the proposed amendment failed 98-80. Undeterred, Nicholas Harmon offered another amendment to Article 8 to add $300,000 toward underground power.

"Now you are requesting we put forth a project with less money than we need to do the job. What is the point of this?" Pierson asked.

That amendment failed 93-66 and voting was also conducted by a paper ballot.

Finally, the original Article 8 was passed by a voice vote.

Immediately after lunch, voters took up the school budget and issue of whether to adopt it via Australian ballot. That garnered passionate debate about the value of assembling as citizen legislators to set budgets versus allowing more people to vote by removing budget votes from the floor of Town Meeting.

"If we vote no, we're excluding people de facto," said Deri Meier on the issue of Australian ballot for the school budget.

IMPORTANT DIALOGUE

"The discussion we had this morning was an important dialogue, an exchange of ideas and trying out alternative proposals. That is exactly why I think we should continue to have Town Meeting as we have in the past. I urge you to vote no on this," Andreas Lehner said.

"I value Town Meeting and I value the day and the contacts we have made with each other. There are so few times when such a large percent of us can get together. Let's preserve a very special thing about Vermont. There are so few places in the country where this could be taking place," offered Carol Hosford.

"Taking this kind of action at this time is premature. Perhaps we will come to it someday, but let's first look at other options that will let more people participate. This does not need to be decided on this year. Let's take a year and study this and come back," said Leo Laferriere.

Again a request for a paper ballot was requested. Voters rejected Australian ballot for school budgeting by a vote of 108-66.

Voters approved the school budget, also by paper ballot, by a vote of 112-30.

After passing the town budget of $2,527,963 by a voice vote, Waitsfield voters moved on to Article 11 which would have town budgets voted by Australian ballot. This drew more impassioned pleas from supporters and opponents.

"We have something that is really precious with face-to-face dialogue at Town Meeting. It would be a real tragedy to see it go away. People elsewhere in this country and the world envy our ability to do this. For over 200 years, this is how Town Meeting has happened. It has always been hard for people to get here and 150 years ago, I bet it was harder to get here," Phil Huffman said.

"We have what the country is losing, the ability to disagree and be civil about it. Doing anything that will weaken that will not strengthen our society. Town Meeting should be a paid holiday so that everyone can attend. Maybe we could get rid of the Battle of Bennington Day," said Russ Bennett.

The question was called and a show of hands rather than a paper ballot was requested. Voters rejected the article 107-39.

Voters approved a proposal to raise the threshold for petitioning for a revote or reconsideration from 5 percent to 10 percent and when it was suggested that the body skip over Article 15 calling for a nonbinding resolution to create a state bank, those present were not ready to stop Town Meeting even though it was past 5 p.m. Ultimately, that article was rejected and the chairs were folded up at 5:30 p.m.

Polls remained open through 7 p.m. and when ballots were counted, 527 voters had cast ballots, including 40 absentee ballots. That is 37.24 percent of the town's registered voters.

Voters elected Sal Spinosa as a write-in candidate for select board. He received 330 votes to Peter Reynells' 138 votes. Town clerk Jennifer Peterson received 481 votes over challenger Penny Reynells' 35 votes. Logan Cooke was re-elected to the select board and Peterson was re-elected as treasurer.

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