The creators of a petition calling for shifting $50,000 of Waitsfield's municipal water project costs from system users to all taxpayers asked the select board to withdraw the petition from the Town Meeting agenda, but the town's attorney nixed that idea.
At this week's February 14 meeting Attorney Steve Stitzel told the
select board that a petition accepted by the board and warned at Town
Meeting could not be rescinded. A second town attorney, Joe McLean,
affirmed that the select board has no authority to withdraw an article
that voters had petitioned to have discussed at Town Meeting - even at
the request of those who put forth the petition.
So the petition will be discussed (and could be amended) at Town Meeting on March 1 and how it is handled will depend a great deal on how the town's moderator addresses the issue. Waitsfield's longtime moderator Peter Joslin stepped down last year and, so far, no one has publicly announced their intention to run for that post.
At this week's meeting, Kate Williams, chair of the select board, reported to the board that she had had phone calls from the petition's creators asking that the town withdraw the petition because of concerns about how signatures were gathered.
The petition was created by Corinthia Richards and circulated by Cindy Carr. The petition called for shifting some costs of the town's water project from users to taxpayers and proposed creating a per gallon fee to be paid for water usage. That fee would go to two landowners with whom the town is currently negotiating for access to water.
The town drilled a well in the right of way of Reed Road under the assumption that it was a town road. In November the Vermont Superior Court ruled that Reed Road is not a town road. The town simultaneously began negotiating to purchase 2.52 to 2.98 acres from two landowners whose property abuts Reed Road. Corinthia Richards represents the Jean Damon family. The other landowner is Virginia Houston.
At this week's meeting, Williams explained that, on the advice of the Vermont secretary of state, the town checked with people who signed the petition to see if they were fully informed about what they were signing.
"We got a mixed response. Some people indicated they'd been well informed and some came to us unsolicited and said they hadn't known what they were signing. Some said they did know. So our intent was to deal with that tonight," Williams explained.
"Today I got a call from those who circulated the petition saying they want to withdraw it. They feel they are not comfortable with the fact that people felt they didn't know what they were signing," she continued.
"They didn't want that kind of atmosphere surrounding the petition, but, also, in the process of public discourse that the petition sparked, they essentially got the sense that this is not a direction they want to be pushing for," Williams said, referring to the direction of shifting costs from users to all taxpayers.
Board member Bill Parker said his concern about removing the article from the Town Meeting
Agenda would be that people were looking at the article as an opportunity to have a discussion about a very important topic at Town Meeting.
Corinthia Richards, who drafted the petition, said, via email after the meeting, that the petitioners were also worried that a lot of people thought the petition came from the select board.
"A lot of people thought that the petition came from the select board. It did not. And that upset a lot of people. We did not intend to upset people or make everybody mad at the select board. We offered to amend/withdraw if they thought that would help with the dialogue. Kate [Williams] has been a super helpful contact through all of this and we wanted her to know that we are not trying to make things more difficult," Richards said.
While the issue of cost shifting and per gallon fees will now be discussed at Town Meeting, there are many voters with concerns about whether the shift is legal. When Waitsfield was planning and proposing the project, the plans called for having all costs of operating the $7.5 million project covered by users. Having users pay the costs was a requirement for the town to secure the grants and loans it received for the project and it was included in the wording of the bond vote that voters passed on the project.
Town Administrator Valerie Capels contacted the grant and loan providers regarding whether costs could be shifted after the fact of applying for and receiving the government funds.
"Rural Development said that if the town decides to shift costs to the tax base, they are not in a position to object. The fact that initially users were to bear the costs is what helped the project get higher grants and lower interest on the loans. User repayment meant that the town qualified for more money," Capels said.