Tuesday March 30, 2010

BRATTLEBORO -- The Brattleboro Selectboard voted 3 to 2 against accepting a citizens petition asking for a townwide vote on pay-as-you-throw trash collection.

The reason they said no to the petition, explained Selectboard Chairman Dick DeGray, was because Town Attorney Bob Fisher advised them that the petition contradicted procedures outlined in the Town Charter.

At the same time, the board said it was willing to work with the petitioners to bring the matter to a townwide vote.

To do so, the board needed to call a halt to the procedure or else the petitioners wouldn't have enough time to correct the problem with the original petition.

The board sent the petition to the Windham County Superior Court for a determination on whether Fisher's interpretation was correct, bringing the whole process to a halt.

A petition must be submitted no later than five days following the Town Meeting vote. The board then has 14 days to vote on the petition and 10 days after that to schedule a townwide vote.

With the matter now before the superior court, there is an official hold on the time requirements.

Town Meeting Representatives approved the budget at Town Meeting on March 20. Included in the budget was $328,000 in trash tipping fees paid for by the purchase of trash bags by town residents.

The petition asked voters to put $328,000 for the tipping fees back into the budget to restore regular trash collection, which would equal a 2.8 percent increase over the level-funded budget approved by meeting representatives.

The town attorney told the board that just adding $328,000 to the budget wouldn't withstand legal challenges.

Instead, town voters have to decide whether to reject or accept the budget as a whole to register their displeasure with the pay-as-you-throw decision, Fisher told the board.

Board member Jesse Corum explained that voters cannot amend the budget as requested in the petition because the line item for the tipping fees was not voted on by Town Meeting Representatives.

The entire budget was approved, not just the switch to pay-as-you-throw, he said.

"We would not be following the Town Charter if we were to approve the referendum in its present form," said Corum.

After the board voted to reject the original petition, it voted in favor of a petition that asks town residents to vote yea or nay on the entire budget.

"We would like to see this go to a townwide vote," said DeGray. "The actions we are taking today with both motions is in the best interests of the community."

Board member Martha O'Connor said she was concerned that accepting a badly worded petition could lead to litigation by those on either side of the issue.

Board members Dora Bouboulis and Daryl Pillsbury disagreed with the town attorney's interpretation of the Town Charter.

"The petition is valid in its current language," said Bouboulis.

Pillsbury agreed, but said, "As long as we come out with a townwide vote, I don't care how we get there."

Leo Barille and Moss Kahler, who circulated the original petition, now have 14 days to collect 250 signatures of the 500 people who signed in support of bringing pay-as-you-throw for a townwide vote.

The sticking point for the Selectboard came down to the interpretation of a part of the Town Charter that reads "The voters of the town may petition for a referendum ... on any action of the Representative Town Meeting."

Attorney David Gibson, speaking on behalf of Barille and Kahler, said the board was interpreting the clause incorrectly.

He said because the referendum provision in the charter refers to "any matter," registered voters can add the $328,000 without voting yea or nay on the entire budget.

"Before you decide to spend the taxpayers' money on superior court action, you should reconsider your thoughts," said Gibson.

The charter allows for the possibility of multiple referendums, he said.

"If you don't like (the charter), then amend it," said Gibson.

Kahler said it was clear that the writers of the Town Charter intended for voters to have the ability to bring any matter up for a townwide vote.

The board's reasoning was absurd, he said, and the members were basically tearing the charter in half and throwing it on the ground.

"You are not protecting the sanctity of the charter," said Kahler. "You are turning your back on it."

Corum disagreed, saying if Gibson's interpretation was correct, a petitioner could submit a request for a townwide vote on almost anything in the budget, which would make the whole process "unwieldy."

If town residents vote in favor of the new petition, said Town Manager Barbara Sondag, "The message would be clear that it failed because of pay-as-you-throw."

She would then turn a budget over to the board that wouldn't include the pay as you throw provision and would instead increase the budget by 2.8 percent to pay for the tipping fees.

Upon Selectboard approval, it would then be presented to Town Meeting Representatives at a special meeting, said Sondag.

Kahler asked if the board would follow the wishes of the townwide vote.

Each of the board members said they would.

"We want nothing more than to have a townwide vote and we want it done properly, sooner rather than later," said Corum.

Ellen Schwartz, who signed the petition, said asking voters to decide on the budget rather than pay-as-you-throw could prove to be confusing.

"It needs to be clear to the people when it comes to a vote," she said.

"We can do our part," responded DeGray. "But it's also the petitioners part to make it clear what everyone is voting on."

Kahler said the petitioners now have to track down each of the signers of the original petition to ask them to sign the new one.

"You probably don't care about the difficulty," he said.

DeGray said the town is willing to work with the petitioners, including placing the new petition in the Town Clerk's office where signers could come in and endorse it. They have until 5 p.m. on April 12 to sign the new petition.

DeGray, Corum and O'Connor voted against accepting the original petition.

Pillsbury and Bouboulis voted for accepting it.

In accepting the amended petition, DeGray, Corum, O'Connor and Pillsbury voted in favor.

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.