Report mailing, rec money on city ballot

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen on Jan. 10 adopted two articles for voter consideration on Town Meeting Day: one that would devote $37,000 to improvements to the city’s recreation area and another that would end the practice of mailing annual reports to every Vergennes household.
Aldermen also discussed adopting a conflict of interest policy, possibly at their next meeting, set for Jan. 31, and broadened their search for a new police station site.
City Manager Mel Hawley said on Wednesday the recreation discussion grew out of the city recreation committee’s request for funds for improvements to the recreation area near Vergennes Union Elementary School. Specifically, the committee supports expanding the paved area that houses the basketball and tennis courts in the summer and skating rink in the winter, and bring the basketball court to full size.
The committee envisions the expanded paved area being used for a variety of games, Hawley said, and the project would cost about $37,000.
Currently, the city’s Watershed Fund, used to support recreation facilities, stands at $387,000, Hawley said.
That fund started with $300,000 from the mid-1990s sale of the former Vergennes reservoir property in southwestern Monkton. Current council policy calls for 75 percent of the annual interest generated from the fund to be used for recreation spending, and 25 percent of the interest remaining in the fund to grow its principal.
Hawley recommended to aldermen last week that they put before voters — and the council agreed to do so — a plan to take $37,000 out of the fund and use it for the improvements suggested by the recreation committee.
The plan also calls for the same 75/25 percent formula to stay in place for the $350,000 remainder of the Watershed Fund, subject to a positive vote by Vergennes residents in March.
The other article approved by aldermen for March voter consideration would take advantage of a new state law that allows municipalities and school districts the option of no longer mailing annual reports to every household.
“Many municipalities have done away with that requirement,” Hawley said.
Hawley said if residents approve this article, full printed copies would be available at City Hall for those citizens who want them, and the full text would also be available on the city’s website (vergennes.org).
Reports will still be mailed out to all residences this year as usual, he said — the change would not take effect until 2013 if approved in March.
In December aldermen approved another article for voter consideration, one that if backed by voters would raise the threshold needed for petitioners to require a revote of a citywide election from 5 to 10 percent of the Vergennes checklist.
Effectively, that article means petitioners would have to round up about 150 signatures instead of 75 to challenge an election result.
Hawley also last week presented the council with a model conflict of interest policy from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Aldermen asked him to tailor it for the council and bring it to them on Jan. 31, and Hawley expects action then.
“My plan is to put it in front of them for hopeful adoption on the 31st,” Hawley said. “I’m not hearing anyone against it.”
Hawley said on Wednesday having the policy in place will help aldermen answer questions in advance on when they should abstain and when they should get up from the table and speak as citizens rather than as elected leaders, and would help instill confidence in the transparency of city government.
“It sets up a clear process,” Hawley said.
At the same time, he said there has never been reason for concern.
“I am going to say there is a benefit (to adopting the policy), but we have been operating with an unwritten conflict of interest policy forever,” Hawley said.
The model policy defines conflicts of interests as: 
•“A direct or indirect personal or financial interest of a public officer” or a relative, business associate, employer or employee “in the outcome of a cause, proceeding, application or any other matter pending before the officer or before the public body in which he or she holds office or is employed.”
•“A situation where a public officer has publicly displayed a prejudgment of the merits of a particular quasi-judicial proceeding.”
•“A situation where a public officer has not disclosed ex parte communications with a party in a quasi-judicial proceeding.”
Hawley said the city’s development review board and planning commission already have such policies in place, and that he will recommend that the boards of listers and civil authority each adopt one.
In discussing the police station, Hawley and aldermen agreed they should expand the criteria to include buildings that are now occupied if their locations are suitable.
Last week’s discussion was triggered when Alderwoman Ziggy Comeau pointed out a building she owns at the corner of School and Green streets is on the market and might be serviceable, and Hawley pointed out the building across the street now partially occupied by Addison Northwest Supervisory Union offices might also be well-suited.
Aldermen have discussed moving police out of City Hall for more than a decade. Their two-room quarters are cramped, the use is less than ideal when combined with the Vergennes Opera House, and the city might eventually need the office space. But financial concerns have eventually brought most considerations to a halt.
Talks were sparked again in 2010 when the Vergennes ID school district deeded an 8-acre parcel off New Haven Road to the city, and the prospect of not paying for land for a station site intrigued the council.
But Hawley said in a Wednesday interview that city officials are concerned that site “may not be the best location,” and they are evaluating a number of sites, including on North Main Street as well as downtown, in their still preliminary search.
“You’ve got to look at all the sites,” Hawley said. “This is a hundred-year decision.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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