Water board says no once again to revote
VERGENNES — The Vergennes-Panton Water District Board again on Tuesday declined to accept Vergennes resident and Alderman Randy Ouellette’s petition calling for a second vote on the board’s $5.1 million plan for a major upgrade to its lakefront water plant.
On Aug. 4, Vergennes and Panton residents voted, 104-49, in 8 percent turnout, to approve a bond in that amount to fund what would be essentially a complete overhaul of the district’s 37-year-old plant on Lake Champlain, the first major project since its construction.
Vergennes-Panton water commissioners estimate the bond would boost annual rates for a typical household from what they said is now an artificially low $174 to about $368, still less than the statewide average of about $400 a year.
Within the 30-day petition window, Ouellette 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.
The water commissioners, acting on the advice of attorney Paul Giuliani, ruled because it was a bond vote, not a municipal election, the required threshold was 10 percent of voters.
Board chairman Chris Cook released a statement on Wednesday:
“Upon review, the board does not support reversal of our position with regard to Randall Ouellette’s petition for rescission … The board … has been advised by legal counsel and through much discussion a decision was made. We have an obligation to our customers, infrastructure, etc. to do what is best for the water district. The board will not reverse its position. This decision is fully supported by the board of commissioners for the Vergennes-Panton Water District.”
At Tuesday’s water board meeting, Ouellette repeated his contention that the vote should have been held at the same time as the statewide primary 20 days later in order to boost turnout. Ouellette also said some residents told him they were unable to reach the water district office on Canal Street in Vergennes to vote because the nearby city recycling center was operating that afternoon, and a line of cars was blocking access.
“I just don’t like the way this vote was carried out,” Ouellette said.
Ouellette also objected to not being told the number of signatures on his petition were inadequate when he filed it. At that point he had been told by City Manager Mel Hawley and indirectly by an official in the Vermont Secretary of State’s office that he needed 5 percent.
Later, the official, who had been tied up in the statewide recount of the Democratic gubernatorial primary, said an argument could be made for the 10 percent threshold.
“If I was informed, I could have gotten the rest of the signatures without a problem,” Ouellette said.
Cook said last week the board had been surprised by the petition and had not had time to research and react to its filing in a timely manner, and then acted on the advice of its attorney.
Ouellette at Tuesday’s meeting handed the board a letter that said he would pursue action in Addison Superior Court if the board did not accept his petition, which was supported by additional data: Waterbury had accepted a 5 percent petition questioning a bond vote for an equipment purchase.
“As the letter states, I’m going to take it to the next level,” Ouellette said.
Later that evening, Ouellette qualified his stand. He said he would need financial support from those who agreed with his position to proceed in court, but was confident he could find it.
At the water district board meeting, new information came out. First, Cook said the board would raise rates to the higher level in January regardless of vote results to begin to set money aside for needed work.
Second, the board had been advised they had to hold the vote on water district property.
“That was what we were given by legal counsel,” Cook said on Wednesday.
That advice led them to choose the office as the polling place because they believed it would be easiest for voters. Board member Meddi Perry said that using the office also meant that it didn’t make sense to hold a vote on primary day because voters would have needed to make two stops.
“It would have been significantly inconvenient,” Perry said.
Hawley later that evening said he believed that opinion was incorrect, and on Wednesday sent an email stating relevant statutes made “no reference to a requirement that the vote be on water district property.”
Election experts at the secretary of state’s office were unavailable on Wednesday to offer clarification on the issue.
Board members countered Ouellette’s argument on the recycling center, noting that some voters told them at the polls they had dropped off recycling and then voted. The board also said voting hours of 6:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. began long before and ended long after the recycling center’s afternoon hours. Hawley also acknowledged telling water district manager John Deming that he thought the recycling center’s being open might increase turnout.
Commissioners also said they publicized the vote with a series of public meetings, a flyer describing the project mailed to all ratepayers, a letter to the editor by the project engineer, a series of articles in this paper prior to the vote, and signs advertising the vote on the day of balloting.
“We went above and beyond everything,” said commissioner Mark LaPlante.
One issue that emerged from the Tuesday meeting was commissioners were upset that Ouellette did not attend any of the informational meetings or tour the plant before balloting on a project they had planned for over the past two years.
“Why the petition? Why not approach the board before the vote,” Perry asked.
Board members wondered if Ouellette had asked any questions about the plant when they made a presentation to the city council in July. Ouellette said he had not.
“I was paying attention to the cost of the project,” Ouellette said.
Commissioner David Philbrook responded that he wondered how Ouellette felt he was qualified to comment on the $5.1 million cost.
“Did you have any basis for making that statement?” Philbrook said.
“My basis is, did we really have to saddle our elderly people with a doubled rate,” Ouellette said.
But board members continued to criticize Ouellette for, in their view, not making an effort to understand the facility’s needs before questioning the vote.
“It’s not an informed petition,” Cook said. “Have you done a plant tour? Can you name one thing that needs to be done? … Where was this concern over the past two years?”
Ouellette continued to say he had no problem with the upgrade, but with the conduct of the vote.
“If you had done this vote on Primary Day or on Nov. 2nd and it passed, you wouldn’t have heard from me,” he said.
Board members said delaying the project with a court case or another vote would pose problems. Perry listed possible mechanical failures at the aging plant, potential increases in the costs of materials and contractors’ bids, the fact the district had already started the loan application process, and the price of holding a vote or funding a court case.
When Ouellette left for the Tuesday Vergennes City Council meeting, commissioner Patricia Gaouette summed up the board’s position.
“I have no interest in revisiting this,” Gaouette said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].