BERLIN — A verbal tussle over whether Berlin voters will be given the opportunity to decide if their town should join Barre and Montpelier in a regional public safety authority continued this week, and it probably isn’t over yet.
Proponents of what they view as Berlin’s no-risk participation in the new authority say they plan to circulate a petition to obtain the public vote that was requested by a majority of those at last month’s town meeting.
They are welcome to do so, according to Select Board Chairman Ture Nelson, who claimed Monday night the board would be within its rights to ignore a petition — even if it is signed by the requisite 5 percent of the town’s registered voters.
That assertion took two former board members — Patricia McDonald and Paul Irons — aback, though Town Administrator Jeff Schulz said he’d researched the issue and was confident the board could not be compelled to warn a vote on the proposed charter if one is requested by petition.
Schulz said after Monday night’s meeting that he had consulted the town’s attorney, Rob Halpert, before arriving at that conclusion.
Contacted Monday, Halpert declined to comment on what he said was a privileged conversation.
However, based on Secretary of State James Condos’ emailed response to an inquiry from The Times Argus, the board might want to think twice before discarding a petition.
“The statute … is quite clear: ‘A proposal to adopt, repeal, or amend a municipal charter may be made by the legislative body of the municipality, or by petition of five percent of the voters of the municipality,’” Condos wrote. “The petition process is a valid mechanism for initiating the adoption of a municipal charter and does not leave the select board any discretion to deny such a petition.”
McDonald said Tuesday she had also reached out to Condos and a petition is in the works.
“What we’re asking for is the right to vote on an issue we have a right to vote on,” she said.
The only reason the issue was on Monday night’s agenda was the board’s recent retraction of a letter reiterating that it wanted no part of the regional authority. That letter, which was written on the board’s behalf in the wake of the nonbinding vote on Town Meeting Day, prompted McDonald and Rep. Patti Lewis to claim the board violated Vermont’s open meeting law by agreeing to send the correspondence without first publicly discussing it.
Based on that criticism, board members agreed to rescind the letter last month and defer discussion of what to do about it until Monday’s meeting.
Nelson told board members they had three options: resend the letter that reflected the unanimous view of the board, modify it, or simply opt not to send it and “move forward.”
Nelson recommended the latter — a course he said wouldn’t change the board’s position but would, he hoped, eliminate what has become a distraction.
The discussion got off to a somewhat testy start when McDonald, who was critical of the letter’s content, as well as the process that led to it being sent out, raised her hand.
“Do you want us to send the letter, or not send the letter?” Nelson asked curtly.
“Can I comment further?” McDonald asked.
“No, we’re just discussing the letter right now,” Nelson replied.
Less than a minute later — after the board agreed to scrap the letter with nothing more than a series of head nods, McDonald raised her hand and was recognized.
The letter aside, McDonald told the board she remained interested in a public vote on the proposed charter that she said was requested by a majority of voters at town meeting.
“They wanted the opportunity to vote,” she said, suggesting that message was seemingly lost on a board that abruptly ended its four-year participation in a study that town taxpayers helped finance before work on the proposed charter was finished late last year.
“A lot of us would like the opportunity to vote on this charter and have the ability to sit at the table with the public safety authority,” McDonald said. “How do we make that happen?”
Nelson said the advisory vote suggested the issue be included on the ballot for the next annual or special town meeting.
“I’m not going to hold a special town meeting just for that topic,” he said. “I’m not going to spend the money on that.”
That’s when McDonald wondered aloud if a petition might change the board’s mind and Nelson contended it wouldn’t be binding.
Irons questioned that opinion, only to be told by Schulz that, even if presented with a valid petition: “The board would not be legally bound to have a vote.”
Legality aside, McDonald said she was troubled by the “incomprehensible” resistance of a board that let Nelson do all the talking.
“You’re so dead set against this … that if we were to submit a petition you would not consider that you would want to hear from members of this town that you represent?” she asked.
Another former board member, Bob Wernecke, suggested the question could be asked in conjunction with this year’s primary or general elections if cost was a concern.
“I would think we would take that under advisement,” Nelson said.
Several members of the Berlin Volunteer Fire Department, including Chief Miles Silk Jr., attended the meeting but didn’t say anything.
However, Lewis’ husband, Albie, who served in the department for 25 years including a couple as chief, said he was having a hard time understanding the board’s reluctance to participate in a regional authority that will evaluate the potential for consolidating some or all emergency services in participating communities.
“Was there additional cost that they were asking for … or did you just decide that you did not want to participate even though there was no cost?” he asked.
Nelson said he objected to what he described as a “totally backward” process that required towns to adopt a charter before being presented with a detailed implementation plan.
“If they come forth with a concrete proposal I would be much more in favor of taking a look at it,” he said, accusing the committee that Patti Lewis served on for more than four years of “wasting our time” by focusing its efforts on a charter that has now been approved by voters in Barre and Montpelier and a funding mechanism.
Patti Lewis said Berlin should not forgo the opportunity to have risk-free, no-cost representation on a yet-to-be-selected board that will be tasked with answering the sort of detail-oriented questions Nelson posed.
“I think we owe it to our taxpayers and … our neighbors to at least go the next step and investigate it,” she said, suggesting to do otherwise would be shortsighted.
“You need to look at the future,” she said. “It’s not just about tomorrow. It’s about 10 years from now (and) 15 years from now.”
McDonald agreed. She said there was “no downside” to signing on to the regional effort and a potential benefit to helping chart a direction for the authority.
“I don’t understand the resistance to sitting at the table with our friends and neighbors,” she said. “I just don’t understand the reluctance.”
If Condos is right, and a petition calling for adoption of the public safety authority charter is filed with the appropriate number of signatures, the board would be obligated to warn a vote on the question.
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