Newfane's revote on town office is controversial


NEWFANE — Residents again will vote on whether a new town office should be constructed to address concerns over access, storage and privacy.

There's a group of people who feel there had not been enough information prior to the original vote.

"There were two residents who contacted me and as town clerk, I then looked to see what had to be done," said Town Clerk Gloria Cristelli. "The statute is different for bonds from what it is for any other petition. Any other petition would need only to have 5 percent of the registered voters on our checklist. This one required 10 percent."

The re-vote will be held the same day as the general election on Nov. 8 after a petition containing 148 signatures was submitted to the Select Board. At least 123 signatures were needed to signal a second vote on the matter. The article asking voters to approve a $950,000 bond to build a new town office, which failed 286-226 during the primary election on Aug. 9, will be re-warned.

There is another group of people wondering whether town facilities were improperly used in the petition for the re-vote.

Cristelli admitted she collected some signatures in the town office.

"I had the petition in the office and asked people to sign it. I didn't harass anybody," Cristelli said. "Out of 148, I might have gotten a dozen signatures in the office. But I would just say, 'They're in here. Would you be willing to do this?' They either say yes or no and I said it's fine if they didn't want to do it, just that it was available."

Cristelli, who penned an anonymous letter to residents before the original vote and stirred up controversy in town over whether town facilities were used for doing so, said lack of information was her main concern. After attending two informational meetings and a hearing on Aug. 1, she worried that a number of residents had not known enough about the project.

Select Board Vice Chairwoman Carol Hatcher, speaking for herself and not the board, said the board entered into an executive session on Sept. 19 to discuss whether it was proper to have a petition for reconsideration at the town office building and whether public money or facilities were used improperly. Some members of the public had questioned if all the voted ballots made it into the ballot box.

"We're working hard as the Select Board to get through this and make good decisions," Hatcher said. "We're going to be writing an amendment to the policy or regulation prohibiting the presence of petitions involving town votes and other types of political literature with exceptions at the polling place. We do believe there's a clear perception of conflict of interest if the town clerk has a petition for a re-vote in her office, especially for bonds for capital improvements for her office. We don't want that to be happening."

Cristelli was invited but did not show up to the executive session. Receipts and other documents were submitted to the board for the review.

Over 600 copies of her letter were reportedly copied on the town copy machine.

"A number of people hadn't received the facts," Cristelli said. "I felt personally, as town clerk working in this environment, people didn't have adequate information. That's what I'm hoping the Select Board will provide since they were the ones who passed this initial article for the bond for the town office building. I hope they will, as they unanimously approved of having this bond vote. I think it really behooves them to send such information out for such an important vote."

The committee tasked with exploring options around construction of a new office and renovating the existing one is meeting on Tuesday. Cristelli said a few new members have joined the committee.

In August, voters approved of applying $35,000 of unexpended proceeds from the town's November 2012 bond for a bridge in South Newfane towards construction of a new municipal building. That article passed 255 to 249 and sent a mixed message to the Select Board. Renovation rather than new construction seemed to be a viable option.

Asked whether her letter might have had any affect on voters, Cristelli said it was hard to say. People were rightfully concerned that she had not signed her name to the document, she added.

"Some might say they are not going to vote because I, as a private citizen, sent out a letter without saying who I was. Others said this helped to clarify it," Cristelli said. "If the facts and figures were not accurate, I'd apologize as an individual. But it was from information given out at a hearing on Aug. 1. That handout prepared for the Select Board had not been available prior to that hearing and I think again, the Select Board needs to do something."

Cristelli is supportive of the project even though she says she won't receive its rewards. On July 1, she announced she would not be seeking re-election.

Voters' rejection of the new office building was not her reasoning for the decision, Cristelli said. But working in an environment with insufficient space and having concerns about a lack of compliancy around the Americans with Disabilities Act, she said, "certainly is part of it."

More space is needed in the office, Cristelli said, as there is likely only room in the vault for 10 more volumes. She also worried about having no storage space for voting equipment. She said she has to climb up a ladder to get to some documents. She said by going up a narrow staircase with tote bags, she could "easily tumble down."

The suggestion that having two vaults could work was dismissed by Cristelli.

"I can't have lawyers and title searchers go into a vault when I'm out here going to one back there. It just doesn't make sense," she said. "This is my eighth year in the office and we have had no interior painting, no exterior paintings of this building. And money has been put aside. 'Oh well, we need to do a plan.' Then certain Select Board members send things back. Just nothing has been done."

Call Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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