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By Lisa Loomis
Waitsfield's much awaited third vote on a proposed municipal water project has been postponed until November.
Due to an error in warning the $7.6 million bond vote for the project, the September 9 vote has been cancelled, and a November 4 vote rescheduled and rewarned.
Per Vermont statute, legal warnings for such votes must appear in a town's paper of record for the three consecutive weeks prior to the vote. That did not happen in this case and the select board held an emergency, special hearing on Tuesday, September 2, to cancel next week's vote and decide on the next course of action.
At that meeting Town Administrator Valerie Capels told members of the board and members of the water project task force that the town's bond attorney, Paul Giuliani, recommended that the "cleanest" course of action was to cancel the September 9 vote and reschedule a new vote for October or November.
"The soonest it could be is October 7 or 14, or we could wait until the November General Election," Capels said. "I'd be inclined to go with November so we can have the best voter turnout," said board member Roy Hadden.
The project came before voters at Town Meeting in March where it failed by 44 votes, 442 to 398. The select board modified the project in terms of service area and funding and brought it back to voters on June 10. That time it failed by 13 votes, 219 to 206. A group of citizens petitioned the town for a reconsideration of that vote and the town was legally obligated to take action within 60 days. The town warned the third vote for September 9, the day of the primary elections in Vermont.
Board member Kate Williams asked if a November vote would mean the town had not responded in a timely fashion to the petitioners' request to reconsider and Capels left the meeting to consult with the Vermont secretary of state's office.
Board members discussed the cost of holding a special meeting for a bond vote in October and issues of voter turnout. A November vote would mean no additional expense and a higher voter turnout, something board members feel is important given the amount of controversy the water project has evoked.
"I agree with the November date as long as it doesn't have legal implications for the petition and engineering or financing repercussions," said board member Bill Parker.
Project engineer John Kiernan, participating by phone, told the board that delaying the vote 30 or 60 days would not impact financing. The town has $3.6 million in grants for the project. Kiernan did say that there was preliminary site/ground work that needed to be done before the ground freezes, but said that it was likely the work could be done in November, if the town waits for a November vote.
Capels returned to the meeting to report that the secretary of state's office holds the town's bond attorney accountable for certifying that proper procedures have been followed and said that in this instance, where there was a defect in the warning process, Giuliani's advice, to cancel the vote and schedule a new one, was the proper procedure.
"Are we sure that a November vote is not a disadvantage to the petitioners?" Parker asked. Kirstin Siebert, organizer of the petition and a resident of Waitsfield Village, responded.
"I want to let people know that there are residents in the village who need water, like me. When we brought the petition, even though I thought the November election was a good day for a revote, I was glad the board took action. I feel the board has met the intent of the petitioners and I think it's important to get as many people out to vote on this as possible," Siebert said.
Task force member Brian Fleisher reiterated the concern that the town has "clear authority" to postpone the vote until November 4 and said, "If a month is a big deal vis a vis the 60 days allowed by the petition for taking action, then we should have it earlier."
Board members, after further consideration, moved to hold the vote on November 4. At that vote, different standards will apply to the vote, due to a new state law that went into effect on July 1.
Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz explained that the new law requires reconsiderations of bond votes to receive yes votes greater than two-thirds of those who voted against the project at the previous vote.
In this instance, the vote being reconsidered is the June vote. The petition calling for reconsideration was received after July 1, so the new law applies. The June vote was 219 no votes and 206 yes votes. That means the next vote, the reconsideration vote, must receive more than two-thirds of 219, or 146 yes votes in order to pass. It can still pass, with a simple majority of votes cast in November, if that threshold of 146 yes votes is met. "The law was changed to make it harder for reconsideration votes to pass, to prevent a large Town Meeting vote, for example, from being undone by a small petition," Markowitz said.
The $7.6 million project is slated to served Waitsfield Village, Irasville, the Tremblay Road and the Old County Road. The project will cost $7.6 million and the town had obtained $3.6 million in grants. All the operating costs of the system were to be borne by users. The project will provide fire protection to the service area with hydrants.