MIDDLEBURY — Former Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny will help lead a citizens’ petition drive to ensure the 2014 Town Meeting Day ballot includes a bond vote for a new municipal building and a new recreation center.
Tenny announced the petition drive at a Middlebury selectboard meeting on Tuesday evening prior to the board’s revote on a term sheet between the town and Middlebury College outlining a town-gown collaboration on the two building projects.
The term sheet calls for the college to donate a total of $5.5 million in aid toward a total $7.5 million project to erect a new municipal building at 77 Main St., in place of the college’s Osborne House, which would be relocated to a town-owned parcel on Cross Street. The plan also calls for a new recreation center to be built off Mary Hogan Drive. In return for its contribution, the college would receive the current, cleared municipal building/gym site at the intersection of South Main and College streets, land that the institution would maintain in perpetuity as a public park.
The selectboard had voted 5-1 on Oct. 8 to approve the term sheet, with Selectman Craig Bingham opposed. But a group of citizens challenged that vote, stating it should be invalidated because two board members participating in that referendum had ties to the college. They argued that per terms of the town’s conflict-of-interest policy selectboard members Victor Nuovo and Susan Shashok should have recused themselves from voting. Nuovo is a professor emeritus of Philosophy at the college, while Shashok’s spouse works for Middlebury Interactive Languages, a company that is partly owned by the college.
So the board on Oct. 22 rescinded its vote on the term sheet and scheduled a revote on the document for this past Tuesday — this time without the participation of Shashok and Nuovo.
After around 20 minutes of debate, the five eligible board members voted 4-1, with Bingham again opposed, to endorse the term sheet. The term sheet needed to garner at least four votes to pass, per the town charter, which requires at least a four-vote majority for any referendum to become a valid action of the seven-member selectboard.
Many eyes were on Selectman Travis Forbes, who had missed the Oct. 8 meeting where the initial vote was taken and voted with Bingham back on Oct. 22. Forbes explained on Tuesday that his actions on Oct. 22 were not intended to derail the current town offices-recreation project.
“I don’t know if I’m taking this the wrong way, but it seems that Craig and myself have been getting a lot of fingers pointed at us on the conflict of interest issue,” Forbes said. “I know for myself that to rescind the last (term sheet vote) for reasons of keeping things transparent. I wasn’t out to kill the project or anything of the sort. It was just to keep things above the table. That’s how I feel and that’s how it was.”
Had the term sheet failed to garner the minimum four votes, it could have placed the project in limbo and potentially derailed a schedule calling for the municipal building-recreation center to be decided in a March 4, 2014, bond vote.
But Tenny ensured there would be no suspense when he announced the petition drive, through which he and supporters will have to gather signatures from at least 10 percent of Middlebury’s 4,588 registered voters. The threshold of 10 percent (and not the usual 5 percent for petitioned items) must be met because the referendum involves a bond vote.
“I do this not out of disrespect for this board — certainly, I as a former member of the board for many years have the highest respect for the work that is done here,” Tenny said. “But certainly what I have seen and what the community has seen is a case where the issue has turned from objective consideration to one focusing on individuals and diversions and sidebar issues. Because of that, and wanting to give an opportunity without any question that folks could have a vote … that we bring forth a petition by the voters so that we can have an objective look at the project as proposed.”
Tenny said the petition is currently being composed and he expects to submit it with considerably more than the minimum 459 signatures needed. The petition language, he said, will reflect all of the terms and conditions of the plan that is now being crafted by town officials in concert with Bread Loaf Corp.
“(The petition) certainly doesn’t take away the work of this board; what it does is make it the work of the whole community,” Tenny aid. “The whole community then can have a good discussion. I hope that while the petition will be one in support of the issue, it could be supported by those who might oppose the issue, because they should have the opportunity to vote. I think this is what this is all about — maintaining a positive stance on this issue going forward.”
Though a vocal opponent of plans to move the town offices and gym off their current site, Bingham lauded Tenny for the petition drive.
“I’d like to applaud you for your initiative in bringing forth a petition,” Bingham told Tenny. “You may recall back in 1999 that I appeared before this board asking that an article be warned for the ballot about this very same project; I was very politely refused. But I took the initiative and I drafted a petition with a couple of articles on it … I admire you and applaud you for your initiative.”
Tuesday’s meeting also provided an opportunity for critics of the current project plans to reiterate their concerns. Several residents have voiced a strong preference to rebuild the town offices and gym at their current location. They have questioned whether there will be adequate parking to serve a new municipal building at 77 Main St. At the same time, ID-4 school board members have gone on record with objections to a recreation center plan they believe could exacerbate an already clogged parking/circulation scheme on Mary Hogan Elementary School grounds. Plans for the new center do not reflect dedicated parking. Selectboard members have said that in the short-term, the center could be adequately served by spaces at the neighboring county courthouse and Memorial Sports Center. The board has mentioned a “phase two” project in the future that would address recreation center parking as well as upgrade the Mary Hogan circulation and parking schemes.
The ID-4 school board must give its blessing to the recreation center project if it is to be built at the recreation park, because the school district owns the land.
Michael Olinick has been among those who have urged the board to rebuild the town offices and gym at the current site — an option the selectboard discarded after receiving an estimate that such an endeavor would cost $6 million to $10 million and would not draw college assistance.
“I think the public could have been included much earlier in this process,” Olinick said. “That would have been beneficial, in terms of there being some consensus within the community, having had a chance to examine alternatives.”
Olinick encouraged selectboard members to openly state whether they have reservations about the current project plans and/or have a preference to keeping the town offices and gym at their current spot.
Resident Laura Asermily agreed with Olinick that it would be helpful to give citizens more than one option to consider.
“People want to see the options and compare the options,” said Asermily, citing on-site rehab and replacement scenarios that could be part of a menu.
Resident Ross Conrad asked if the town has a formal process of determining its most pressing capital needs. Selectboard Chairman Dean George said the town has a capital plan and tries to take on projects based on need. He cited the police station, wastewater treatment plant and fire station projects as priorities the town has taken on prior to tending to the municipal building and gym deficiencies.
“We try to keep everything in perspective,” he said of the town’s building priorities. “It means being pulled in a hundred different directions and we have to make those choices about which has the highest priority. And we have studied this (municipal) building for many years, as everybody here knows. We’ve spent a great deal of time and effort. We continue to throw money at it to try and keep it sustainable.”
Resident Ron Kohn has urged the town to revisit an engineering study on the gym that was received by town officials this past February. That study, according to Kohn, indicated the current gym building is structurally sound and could be restored for around $600,000 (see his letter to the editor, Page 5A).
Selectman Nick Artim acknowledged the gym is in “much better shape” than the municipal building, but said the study Kohn was referencing focused on engineering, mechanical and plumbing issues with the gym building.
“It didn’t deal with insulation of the structure, it didn’t deal with exterior and cosmetic works, it didn’t involve an elevator,” Artim said.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.