Vergennes will vote on higher petition threshold

VERGENNES — After a spirited discussion about local democracy, on Dec. 20 Vergennes aldermen agreed to put a measure on the March ballot that, if approved by city residents, would increase the threshold needed by petitioners to force a citywide revote from 5 to 10 percent.

That compromise move came after a proposal by residents Cheryl Brinkman and Alex McGuire requesting the council place an article on the ballot to raise the petition bar to 20 percent.

Petitioners in each of the past two years — including members of the city council — have gathered signatures to force revotes on proposed Addison Northwest Supervisory Union unification.

Earlier this year, Vergennes residents overturned their Town Meeting Day vote in favor of unification and defeated the measure, which passed in the other four ANwSU towns.

Brinkman, a member of the Vergennes Union Elementary School and ANwSU boards, said it was not just the unification issue that prompted her and McGuire to request to council to act. The two also said they mightalso consider instead passing a petition to put an article of their own on the March ballot to change the petition percentage.

“We got the feeling there were far too many revotes,” Brinkman said. “The thought in requesting you to move it up to 20 percent is perhaps to make it a little bit more of a difficult process and make sure it is an important reason for a revote.”

Both Brinkman and McGuire, who emailed aldermen because she could not attend, emphasized they thought that 5 percent, which translates to 75 signatures, was too easy a target.

“It (20 percent) doesn’t preclude that revote from happening, but it does need to be an important issue rather than a handful of people,” Brinkman said. “It would need to be a lot of people who think, ‘Something went wrong here,’”

McGuire, a planning commission member and until recently its chairwoman, wrote that increasing the threshold would place a greater emphasis on the initial vote.

 “A 20 percent requirement would encourage more citizens to become active in the campaigning and voting process on issues that matter to them prior to an initial vote, rather than simply relying on the fact that they can always challenge the vote after the fact,” McGuire said.

But before aldermen compromised on a 10 percent article, three spoke in favor of retaining the 5 percent threshold.

Alderwoman Ziggy Comeau successfully petitioned the unification vote in March, citing what she called misrepresentation by ANwSU officials and an Independentarticle before the vote. A higher threshold would make it harder to correct injustices, she said.

“I think this is going to affect the democratic process. I think this is censorship,” Comeau said. “There is something wrong where a vote has been put up and there has been misrepresentation ... and people have a right to come back and revote.”

Alderman Randy Ouellette noted many Vergennes elections draw about 20 percent of the electorate, and that a minority deserves to be heard.

“If 5 percent of the people feel it’s very important to get something done, they’re going to be denied their democratic right to have a revote if we increase this to 20 percent,” Ouellette said. 

Alderman David Austin also said he was hesitant to endorse anything that would prevent citizens from dealing with problematic votes, especially if there was “misinformation” in advance.

“I’m opposed to anything that limits the democratic process and limits the ability of a minority to petition for redress,” Austin said.

But Aldermen Peter Garon and Joe Klopfenstein said minorities’ rights would still be protected.

“It (a revote) waters down the impact of your original vote ... It takes away from the original democratic process,” Garon said. “And it doesn’t preclude it from happening. It just involves more people.”

Brinkman, Ouellette and Klopfenstein had an exchange on the threshold issue.

“If they think it’s important enough for a revote, it just means a larger percentage of people in town will have to be involved in that process and not just a handful of people,” Brinkman said.

“Aren’t that handful important, too?” Ouellette said.

“Of course they’re important,” Klopfenstein said. “They have an opportunity to vote in the first election, too.”

Residents at the meeting were also divided.

Tara Brooks, also a school board member, agreed with the position that revotes water down initial balloting.

“Maybe increasing it to 20 percent would make people feel like they really need to pay attention to what they were voting for,” Brooks said. “It will emphasize that maybe you want to get it right the first time.”

Mike Ferland said he favored aldermen allowing a Town Meeting Day vote, but advised residents to think carefully.

“I always get nervous when people agree to give up their civil rights,” Ferland said. “I would counsel voters to think about this seriously when it does go to a vote.”

Garon urged the council to put something before the residents.

“We are not being asked to make any decision by changing five to 20. We’re just being asked let the voters decide,” Garon said. “You can have your own opinion about the content.”

Mayor Michael Daniels suggested a compromise.

“I do agree that 75 (signatures) is a low number to get and it should be higher,” Daniels said. “But I’m not sure that 300 is the number.”

At first, no compromise appeared likely, and Daniels advised Brinkman to start a petition.

But a motion to put a 10 percent article on the March ballot was made, and Lowell Bertrand, Garon, Klopfenstein and Ouellette formed a four-member majority.

Brinkman and McGuire afterward said they were happy with the 10 percent solution and would not seek a higher threshold.

“I believe the compromise we settled for works out well for everyone,” Brinkman said.

McGuire said Ouellette’s point about the number of votes cast in typical elections made sense.

“Several reasonable points were brought up at the meeting, but the one that struck a chord most with me was the percentage of registered voters who actually vote on any given election day,” she said. “Given that low number, a 10 percent requirement seems reasonable.”

Reporter’s note: One resident in attendance at the Dec. 20 meeting made the following statement: “The Independenthad to publish articles to correct mistakes they made before thelast (unification) vote,” and two aldermen cited “misinformation” in the Independent.

The Independentpublished one clarification about one point regarding projected Vergennes taxes in one article that was published prior to the 2011 Town Meeting Day vote on unification. The Independent has been covering proposed ANwSU unification for seven years.

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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