City residents to decide on change in petition rules

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen recently approved a city warning for March 6 balloting that includes articles that, if approved, would change the number of signatures petitioners would need to challenge elections, increase the base amount of money in a fund that supports recreation programs, and no longer require city officials to mail an annual report to all addresses.
Those topics are also warned for discussion at the annual city meeting on March 5 at 7:30 p.m. in the Vergennes Opera House.
Also on the ballot, as reported in the Independent’s Feb. 2 edition, will be a six-way race for three seats on the city council. Former city manager Renny Perry, Vergennes Partnership president Bill Benton, and University of Vermont employee Nelson Sears are challenging multi-term incumbent aldermen David Austin, Ziggy Comeau and Lowell Bertrand.
Also, teacher Susan Ferland filed to challenge incumbent Vergennes Union Elementary School director Cheryl Brinkman.
Article II on the warning, approved by alderman on Jan. 31, deals with the petition issue. It would raise the minimum number of signatures needed to challenge an election result from 5 to 10 percent of the voter checklist.
Currently, petitioners need to get 75 signatures to trigger a second election, as they did successfully in 2010 and 2011 when Vergennes voted first in favor of Addison Northwest Supervisory Union unification.
If a majority of voters approve Article II in March, that threshold would increase to 150 signatures.
In a December city council discussion on the issue, those who favored the lower threshold generally said residents should retain the right to question results and that good information was not always available at the time of a first election. Those who favored the increase to 10 percent said residents would take the initial election more seriously and become better informed if it were not so easy to petition the result.
Ultimately, although aldermen were split on the question, they agreed residents should make the decision.
Articles III and IV deal with the Watershed Fund and the annual reports, respectively.
Currently, the Watershed Fund, used to support recreation facilities and programs, contains $387,000. Aldermen plan to use $37,000 for improvements to the city’s recreation area near Vergennes Union High School, including expanding the paved area that houses the basketball and tennis courts in the summer and skating rink in the winter, and bringing the basketball court to full size.
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.
Essentially, aldermen would like to re-set the fund at $350,000 and retain the same 75/25 policy, but they require voter approval to do so.
Article IV 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.
If residents approve this article, full printed copies would be available at City Hall for 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 this year as usual — the change would not take effect until 2013 if approved in March.
Aldermen on Jan. 31 also heard from City Manager Mel Hawley that while most city spending is on track, police spending is running high during this fiscal year, which is now about 60 percent complete.
Hawley said calls for police service have increased (see story, Page 7), and that it has been expensive to cover shifts during holidays and training for new full-time officer Rejean Lafleche.
“Holidays are problematic, and calls for service are problematic,” Hawley said. “It’s just something we have to watch.”
Hawley said on Wednesday that overall the police budget is about 68 percent spent, while the overtime line item is already at 108 percent spent.
In a meeting in which aldermen also handed in their rankings for possible sites for a new police station — the issue was not discussed and City Clerk Joan Devine will organize the results for aldermen’s Feb. 21 meeting — Mayor Michael Daniels also sounded a note of caution.
“We can’t budget what we wish for, but what we can afford,” Daniels said.
On the other hand, Hawley said the mild winter has been kind to the public works budget, although he cautioned that most of February and March lie ahead.
“It’s been a pretty easy year for us so far,” Hawley said. “But it’s still a little early for us to tell.”
In other Jan. 31 business, aldermen:
•  Signed a letter that will be displayed at an upcoming weeklong celebration of the life of the Comte de Vergennes in Versailles, France. The Comte de Vergennes, after whom the Little City is named, was the French secretary of state who urged his nation to support the American Revolution. Other letters will be sent from the Bixby Library and the Vergennes Area Chamber of Commerce.
•  Heard from Hawley that the planning commission is nearly finished with its zoning rewrite and hopes to hold a public hearing on March 19. Planners must hold at least one hearing before handing the laws to aldermen, who also must hold at least one hearing during their deliberations on whether to adopt the laws.
Hawley praised the planners’ dedication: “This group is committed to producing the absolutely perfect set of regulations.”
•  Discussed a Vermont League of Cities and Towns model for a conflict of interest policy. Aldermen intend to adopt such a policy soon, possibly on Feb. 21, but tweaked some provisions on Jan. 31 and agreed to have VLCT officials look at one section that they believed could be too restrictive. Hawley said the city planning commission and development review board already have such policies, and recommended the boards of listers and civil authority should move toward adopting one.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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