Roughly 40 people convened in the Rockingham Town Hall Lower Theatre to have their voices heard on the controversial matter when the Bellows Falls Village Board of Trustees and the Rockingham Selectboard met for a public presentation from Jim "Jiggs" McAuliffe, who along with fellow village resident Paul Obuchowski strongly supports the idea of a merger and created the merger plan. The special joint board meeting was scheduled to hear McAuliffe's presentation and for the boards to decide whether to send the idea to a vote following public hearings.
A motion before the trustees to send the merger plan to a public vote failed 1-3 and the Selectboard opted to table the issue. Charlie Hunter was the only trustee to vote in the affirmative.
Under a merger, the Rockingham Selectboard would assume the duties of the Bellows Falls trustees and the Bellows Falls Village Corporation would cease to exist. The three long-established fire districts of Bellows Falls, Saxtons River and Rockingham would be retained but fire taxes would be paid by only those residents living in their respective fire district. The Bellows Falls Police Department's area of responsibility would not change.
No tax dollars would be used to fund the Bellows Falls water and wastewater services, as they are operated under separate enterprise funds and are funded through user fees.
Selectboard member Peter Golec asked McAuliffe what the prime reason was for wanting a merger. McAuliffe said it was governance.
"We feel very strongly that one good board for a town of this size is perfectly adequate to manage the affairs of this town. And we have observed over the course of history the contention between trustees and the Selectboard," he said. "The problems that we are going to be handling in the future will be handled best by one board."
McAuliffe also touched upon the low retention rate of Bellows Falls/Rockingham municipal managers, as Willis "Chip" Stearns II is the sixth manager he has seen in the past eight years.
Some town officials, including Trustee Colin James, objected to what was described as contention between the two municipal boards and he said they work well together.
Had the merger plan been sent to a public vote, two public informational meetings for village residents and two for Rockingham residents would have been required per Vermont state statutes. Because village residents are also town residents they would have been able to attend all four meetings. Two informational meetings in the village and the town on Thursday, Jan. 2, and Thursday, Jan. 16. The vote on the merger would have been set for Tuesday, Jan. 21.
Bellows Falls resident Robin Story stood up with the first public comment and said she thinks the village trustees serve a very important function within the municipal government. Joel Love said he is not opposed to a merger but detested the way the process has been handled. He said he has worked on corporate mergers that took a lot longer to finalize and that were conducted with much more transparency.
"There is just something fundamentally not transparent about this process," Love said from the back row in the lower theatre. "The Founding Fathers saw it fit to have two chambers of Congress and though they fight, they work together."
He also objected to the informational meetings and the vote being scheduled for January.
"If it was a good plan, it would stand the test of being put under a microscope for six or eight months," he said.
Bellows Falls residents Doug MacPhee said the plan consists of simple documents and he just wanted the public to have an opportunity to vote on it. Jim Mullen, a former Bellows Falls/Rockingham municipal manager, suggested having the vote on Town Meeting Day in March and allowing residents to request absentee ballots in order to cast their vote early. Joe Brissette also thought the scheduled voting day was too soon.
Mary Barber said "the icky feeling" people have toward the merger plan could have been avoided if there had been a more transparent process and her husband, Clark, said the current system of government has served the community well for at least 100 years.
Before the vote not to advance the merger plan, Trustee Stefan Golec took a moment to say the plan seemed to have been crafted through "secret meetings and sweetheart deals." He also said he was offended not to have been invited to the meetings were the plan was devised and he wants a sanctioned and proper committee -- not an ad hoc one -- to work on a merger plan. There will be another joint meeting next week to discuss forming such a committee.
Earlier in Tuesday's meeting, the joint board voted to award a landscaping maintenance bid to E. Clark Landscaping, instead of Vermont Hillside, which had a lowest bid. James, Charlie Hunter and Village President Roger Riccio voted in favor while Golec voted no and Andrew Smith abstained. The Selectboard voted unanimously for E. Clark Landscaping. Some in the audience expressed their displeasure over the trustees' selection of the more expensive company when both were reputable. Those in the room who support a merger said it was a perfect example of how the town could be run more efficiently if it was governed by just one board.
McAuliffe told the Reformer on Wednesday he was disappointed but not shocked by the trustees' vote on the merger. He said he would be willing to take part in a sanctioned committee, depending on who else in on it.
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.