BELLOWS FALLS — A non-valid petition was introduced to the village clerk with the interest of a public vote on the proposed Liberty Mill Justice Center.
"Right now the petition is not worded with a yes-or-no question, but I have offered to work with Deb Wright to convert it into the proper format so the board can recognize it," said Municpal Manager of Rockingham/Bellows Falls Village, Willis D. "Chip" Stearns II. "Then the board will see if it will be allowed as an article for a vote in May."
Local resident, Deborah Wright, collected the necessary signatures for a village vote, but did not word the petition with the correct format. According to Stearns, the petition included 89 valid signatures, which is more than 5 percent of the 1,700 village voters.
The controversial discussion began when Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark proposed the multi-million-dollar criminal detainee/resource facility. The center would be located in the village's former Liberty Mill, also known as the Chemco building, which has been untouched for about 20 years, in the south end of the village. The space will hold 155 beds — 120 secure for either federal or state male detainees, 20 for female detainees at either the state or federal level and 35 for those that are transitioning out or that are eligible for the electronic monitoring program.
"(The petition) was anticipated by myself and the village clerk since it was delivered that afternoon to town hall," said Stearns. "I think the presenter expected action/determination that night."
On Nov. 24, Clark presented his plans for the facility at a joint village trustees and Rockingham Selectboard meeting, where he explained that he felt this project was in the best interest of the community. However, many audience members at the meeting expressed their disapproval with the project. Clark said he was not surprised when the petition was presented at the Dec. 8 meeting, because he was already aware that it had been circling around before he presented on Nov. 24.
"In light of the fact that they were already trying to circulate a petition before I ever presented, to me what I am seeing is people who are not willing to look at all of the information," said Clark. "And I think as I go forward and continue to hold public meetings and present what we are looking to do, we will continue to garner support."
At the Nov. 24 meeting, Clark said he could not confirm whether there would be a village vote or not. "I'm not convinced at this point, or are we obligated to take it to a town vote," he said.
Though Stearns has offered to help Wright with the rewording of the petition, according to Stearns, Wright has not contacted him. If the petition is approved by the Bellows Falls trustees, an article may be presented at the annual Bellows Falls village meeting, which is usually held in May.
"Until the petition is worded as a yes-or-no question and been reviewed by counsel and accepted by the village trustee board by majority and ballot votes are counted, it would be pure speculation when the 'final say' will be," said Stearns. "The zoning permit has not been submitted to the town of Rockingham, which begins the local government participation in matters of fact."
Clark said he feels that the petition does not threaten his projected timeline for the Liberty Mill Justice Center, because even if village members are allowed to vote, it would be a non-binding message from the community.
"If they want to take it to village vote, that's fine," said Clark.
Clark hopes to begin construction within six months upon receiving a matched $250,000 grant. However, he said the process is taking longer than he expected, and he may not receive the grant until January or February of 2016.
"This program we are developing completely changes how we address criminal behavior," said Clark.
Clark's office has scheduled an informational meeting about the project at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 16 at the Bellows Falls Opera House.
"We are charitable people here in Bellows Falls, but we must strive first to provide for our own downtrodden," wrote Wright in a letter to the editor of the Reformer. "How shall burying us further in free-movement and electronically-monitored individuals accomplish a rehabilitation of our community?"
While some may feel it is not necessary "to engender buy-in from the residents who might have to live with the decisions made here," she wrote, "but that apathy sets the stage for further disintegration of neighborhoods, communities, housing, and faith in local and federal government. The disconnect grows ever wider as elected officials fail to heed the concerns of the citizens they claim to protect."