The Waitsfield Water Commission voted to pay $14,198.48 towards the water main break settlement that the Waitsfield Select Board reached with the state last year.
At the water commission’s July 14 meeting, commissioners decided to offer the select board their emergency reserve fund to help with the cost of the water main break. The water commission took a 37-minute executive session and after members came out of it they approved putting forth $14,198.48.
“There was consensus that a letter be written to make it clear that the water commission does not believe it is its responsibility to contribute toward the water main break expenses; however, given that there is an emergency reserve fund, they believe supporting the select board is the right thing to do,” the minutes read.
The water commission entered into an executive session “finding that premature public disclosure would place the water commission or a person involved at a substantial disadvantage.” In interviews, The Valley Reporter has questioned the legitimacy of the executive session given that the subject has been discussed extensively in open sessions at prior select board and water commission meetings.
“When we discuss finances, we don’t necessarily have to do that in open session,” Darryl Forrest, chair of the water commission, said.
“I can see your concern if we came out of that executive session and had no result but we came out of that session with a result and that’s what we were after in that session. And I don’t know if everybody on the board would have been OK speaking their piece on that because it’s a financial thing and it’s a pretty touchy thing,” Forrest added.
“I don’t think we did anything wrong as long as we came with a decision,” he concluded.
Vermont’s open meeting law allows boards to enter executive session for five specific reasons, including one where premature public knowledge would place parties at a disadvantage. Discussing “finances” is not one of the specific reasons nor is board members’ desire to “speak their piece” or discuss a “pretty touchy thing.”
Last year the Waitsfield Select Board reached a settlement with the state which left the town on the hook for $129,548 with two insurers, representing two contractors and VTrans, paying $80,000. In 2014, a VTrans contractor drilled through a water main near the bottom of Tremblay Road. The break left water system users without water for more than 30 hours, impacting commercial and residential users alike. The town had a temporary fix installed and then permitted and engineered and constructed a permanent fix.
The town took VTrans and the contractors to court which ultimately ended up in binding arbitration which led to the settlement.
The select board has asked the water commission to come up with an amount of money toward the settlement. The water commission is an arm of the select board tasked with overseeing the town’s water system.
Over the last two months different water commission members have come to the select board and expressed their concern with paying for the settlement.
At the select board’s June 26 meeting, Bill Parker and Peter Reynells met with the board members and expressed their discontent that they were not involved in the repair or settlement, yet were now being asked as commissioners, to pay for some of the costs.
At that meeting, Parker explained how, through the water system, the town was able to put in a fire suppression system and the water system users, about 100 people total, are paying the cost of it.
Both select board members and water commissioners agreed that the water system is a community asset and Parker said that if the water commission was to bear part of the cost of the settlement, that the users would effectively be paying twice, once as a user and once as a taxpayer.
BEAR THE COST
Parker and Reynells also expressed their belief that the water system is a communitywide asset and that it is unfair for the water system users to bear the cost of fixing it.
On June 26, Parker suggested that the water commission put forward its emergency reserve fund, he said about $15,000, as an act of good faith but that is all. He explained that if the water system had to pay all of the settlement, the fees for users would essentially double.
The water commission will meet one more time before bringing its offer to the select board at the end of August.
At the select board’s August 14 meeting, the water commission, represented by Darryl Forrest, asked that a different lawyer, apart from the town’s current lawyers Joseph McLean from Stitzel’s office and Philip Woodward, look at the water ordinance. The water ordinance has been undergoing revisions over the past year.
Forrest explained that the water commission would like someone with experience in the field to look at the ordinance.
The select board did not approve the request. Board members want to make sure that the main break settlement and its payment is figured out before the ordinance is taken care of. The board was also hesitant to hire a second lawyer because members feared paying for two lawyers, who might disagree, especially regarding the main break settlement.
“There’s a potential for conflict and we could be paying for both, you could be paying for your lawyer, we could be paying for our lawyer and suddenly there’s a conflict between the water commission and the select board, which should never happen because we are one,” select board member Sal Spinosa said.