ID-4 petitions nixed, but board to give voters their say

MIDDLEBURY — The ID-4 school board on March 4 rejected two citizens’ petitions seeking to change the date of the district’s annual meeting and the method by which the Mary Hogan Elementary School budget is voted, but the panel unanimously agreed to place two articles on ID-4’s April 8 meeting warning that would accomplish the same changes sought by the petitioners.
Members of the ID-4 board’s policy and communications committee said they could not honor the citizens’ petitions, as presented, based on an inspection of those documents by the board’s attorney, Steven Stitzel. One of the petitions reads, “Shall the Incorporated District No. 4 hold its annual meeting within 10 days prior of Town Meeting Day?” The other reads, “Shall Incorporated District No. 4 adopt its annual budget by Australian ballot on Town Meeting Day?”
Petitioners have argued that Australian ballot voting would allow more voters to weigh in on the Mary Hogan budget, which is currently decided at an annual ID-4 meeting that the district charter mandates be held on the second Wednesday in April. That meeting has been drawing in the range of a few dozen people each year.
Both petitions garnered more than the 250 signatures needed to make the questions eligible for placement on the annual meeting warning.
But Stitzel’s review of the petitions uncovered some flaws, noted ID-4 board member Billy Connelly, leader of the policy and communications committee.
“Our attorney has advised that the article does not specify a date and therefor is not substantially the form that is required by Section 422 (of state statutes) and our attorney recommended that we should not include this article in our warning for the annual meeting,” Connelly reported to his colleagues and a handful of audience members at last Wednesday’s meeting.
Connelly said Stitzel found two separate flaws with the Australian ballot petition.
“Our attorney stated that inclusion of the phrase ‘on Town Meeting Day’ constitutes a significant deviation from the statutory language and is not substantially the form that is required by law,” Connelly said. He also explained that ID-4 is currently bound by rules specifying that the district is obliged to vote on the Mary Hogan Elementary budget at its annual meeting, and not on any other day.
“For these reasons, our attorneys have advised that we should not include this petitioned article on our warning,” Connelly said. “The policy and communications committee agrees that we should follow the advice of counsel, and our recommendation is that our board reject these petitioned articles and not include them in the annual meeting warning.”
Connelly then looked into the audience and asked if there were any questions. When none were forthcoming, ID-4 board member Amy Graham asked whether there was anything the panel might do to meet the petitioners’ intent. Lorraine Morse, another ID-4 board member, echoed Graham’s sentiment.
“What was the committee’s thinking on that?” she said.
“I’m glad you asked that question,” Connelly said.
“It’s important to note what we could have done right here,” he added. “Our committee could recommend no further action. Our board would not be required to include these (petitioned) articles in our warning.”
But ultimately, Connelly said, the committee unanimously agreed to fashion two articles that were properly worded to meet the petitioners’ intent.
“Our committee felt strongly that at the heart of these petitioned articles and at the heart of the issue is really voter participation, and participation in the Democratic process,” he said.
Those newly worded articles are:
•  “Shall the incorporated school district No. 4 hold its annual meeting on the first Tuesday in March?” This wording, Connelly noted, specifies a date — Town Meeting Day. It provides for a vote on the Mary Hogan budget on Town Meeting Day but would also not preclude the district from holding a public gathering within three days prior to Town Meeting Day to present the budget and to vote on other matters.
•  “Shall the incorporated district No. 4 adopt its budget article or articles by Australian ballot?”
The substituted articles, Connelly said, are compliant with state statutes the district’s charter. Moreover, he said, there would be no complications should one of the articles be defeated and the other pass.
Ruth Hardy, ID-4 chairwoman and member of the policy and communications committee, joined her colleagues in approving the two substitute articles.
“Our counsel made it clear that we are not obligated to substitute new articles for the articles that are not in compliance, but we, as (Connelly) said, felt that it was in the spirit of democracy to include them,” she said.
Hardy and several of her colleagues noted they were agreeing to warn the articles in spite of objecting to the changes those measures would bring.
“I think the ability to come to a meeting and learn about what you are voting on and interacting with your elected officials is a precious right and tradition we have here in Vermont, and I would hate to see anything change that,” Hardy said. “I also think its a slippery slope; it will just continue to degrade the Vermont tradition, which is so precious to lots of people.”
Matt Landis, who will be leaving the ID-4 school board next month, said of the proposed change in meeting date: “I’m pretty skeptical that this is going to have any impact on our (annual meeting) attendance. I will vote ‘aye,’ but I don’t think the problem is when we are having our meeting.”
Landis added he believes Australian ballot voting will further reduce attendance at the district’s annual meeting, which he said would lead to a less informed electorate.
Board member Jason Duquette-Hoffman said he could see the merits and disadvantages of both modes of voting. He acknowledged Australian ballots would allow more people to vote, but said voting from the floor allows people a chance to discuss the spending plan and make changes to it prior to endorsing a final product.
“I think there are really good and thoughtful arguments for and against,” he said.
Morse said she wants to see the matter decided so the board can shift gears.
“I think we have spent a lot of time on this and it’s not a big issue in the grand scheme of things when we hold our meeting and how we vote, in my opinion,” Morse said. “So I would very much like to see us do something to accommodate (the petitioners) and get on to the important issues facing the kids.”
Nancy Malcolm, one of the petitioners, said she was pleased to see the ID-4 board approve the two substitute articles, which will be decided by voice vote, along with the Mary Hogan budget, on April 8. She argued that the number of people who signed the two petitions provides proof that the way the Mary Hogan budget is voted is important to a lot of people.
“I’m glad (the ID-4 board) took the time and energy to look at how the (petitioned questions) could be done to everyone’s benefit and satisfaction,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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