Water vote petition is rejected
VERGENNES — Randy Ouellette, a Vergennes alderman acting as a private citizen, believed on Aug. 31 that he had successfully petitioned for reconsideration of the Aug. 4 vote that backed a $5.1 million bond to pay for Vergennes-Panton Water District plant renovations.
But Ouellette this week learned that his petition had fallen into what one official in the Vermont Secretary of State’s office called “a gray area where municipal attorneys could disagree.” On Monday, he received a letter from the water district board informing him his petition lacked enough signatures to force a revote.
The issue for Ouellette began on Aug. 4, when Vergennes and Panton residents voted, 104-49, in 8 percent turnout, to approve the water district board’s plan for upgrades at the district’s 37-year-old lakefront plant, the first major work since its construction.
Within the 30-day petition window, Ouellette, upset about the timing and location of the vote, gathered 100 validated signatures, more than the 5 percent of Vergennes and Panton voters that he had been advised was necessary to trigger a second vote.
Now, the question is whether a bond election is controlled by one statute that applies to general elections — 24 V.S.A. Section 2661, that calls for a 5-percent threshold; or another specific to bonded debt votes — 24 V.S.A Section 1755, which according to Paul Giuliani, the attorney for the Vergennes-Panton water commissioners, requires a 10 percent threshold for petitioners.
Giuliani’s advice led the water district board to send Ouellette a letter that he received on Monday. It stated, “the petition does not contain the requisite number of signatures for consideration,” and had been rejected.
Board chairman Chris Cook of Panton confirmed the board was following the recommendation of its attorney. Statute 24-1755 allows citizens to require towns to hold bond votes if they pass in a petition signed by 10 percent of voters. Cook said the board’s lawyer said the same applies to opponents of voter-approved bond measures.
“If it takes 10 percent to make something happen, it should be 10 percent for the opposite to happen as well,” Cook said.
But Ouellette, acting on advice from the secretary of state’s office and city officials, stopped collecting signatures once he topped the 5 percent threshold. He is convinced he could have obtained another 92 signatures, even though only 49 people voted against the bond on Aug. 4.
“It wouldn’t have taken me very long to get them, either,” Ouellette said.
Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley, who helped Ouellette write the petition, also acting as a private citizen, does not agree with the 10-percent interpretation.
“It’s crystal clear to me it’s 5 percent for reconsideration. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Hawley said.
Secretary of State Deb Markowitz was out of her office earlier this week. An official in the office told Hawley that the office has “no authority to intervene with a municipality” in the dispute, but that a petitioner could seek a ruling in Superior Court to clarify the apparently contradictory statutes.
Unless petitioners choose to do so, the water district board’s petition rejection will stand. But Ouellette said he has ruled out legal action, and that he will make a decision within a week or so. That timeframe might allow the issue to appear on the November ballot.
“I’m not happy about it. We’re contemplating getting the courts involved,” he said, adding, “That’s the decision I’m going to make, or (I’ll) get some people who shares the same strong opinion to share the costs.”
Ouellette said he does not dispute the plant needs work, although he is not sure the full $5.1 million is needed. Rather, his primary concerns were with the timing and location of the vote.
“This is all about being fair. This isn’t personal,” Ouellette said. “I just wish they had given more thought into how they had staged this vote.”
His points, also echoed by Hawley in an email, were:
• There was only one polling place open, the water district office, which is not a typical polling place. There was no polling place open in Panton.
• It was hard to reach the polling place during some hours because the office is behind the Vergennes recycling center, which was open from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. that afternoon. Hawley cited a 30-minute wait.
• Holding the bond vote in conjunction with that Aug. 24 statewide primary would have ensured a better turnout.
Cook said the board sent out a flyer to all ratepayers, held meetings that included a plant tour, published a letter in the Addison Independent prior to the vote, and placed a sign on West Main Street directing voters to the office. In addition, this newspaper published articles on July 22 and Aug. 2 previewing the vote.
“We took all the necessary steps … We advertised it well,” Cook said.
In addition, Cook said the polling place was open from 6:30 a.m. until 7 p.m.
“They had plenty of time to get in and vote,” he said.
Cook added the water commissioners were “pleased with the turnout.” He pointed to a July vote in Middlebury in which about 93 of Middlebury’s 4,398 voters (2.1 percent) turned out to approve a $3 million water bond, 65-28.
That bond did not change Middlebury’s water rates, however. The Vergennes-Panton bond is estimated to boost the annual rates for a typical household from what district officials said is now an artificially low $174 to about $368, still less than the statewide average of about $400 a year.
As for why the board did not choose Aug. 24, Cook said the board chose Aug. 4 earlier in the summer and had set in motion the warning and meeting dates and could not adjust its calendar.
“We had it planned well in advance,” he said.
Cook was asked if there was a gray area on which petition figure applied, why the board did not accept the lower figure and thus the petition. Cook said the board had been surprised by the petition, and that lack of understanding in part led to their decision simply to follow their attorney’s advice.
“They didn’t state the reason why. We were shocked,” he said. “We were kind of miffed.’”
In addition to potentially speaking with an attorney, Ouellette is also considering talking to the Vergennes-area delegation in Montpelier: Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes, Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, and Sens. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge and Harold Giard, D-Bridport.
Officials in the secretary of state’s office said the contradiction in the petition laws will continue to exist until they are rewritten, and Ouellette said maybe the time has come to clarify them so that no one else hits the same Catch-22.
“It’s for the greater good,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.