Halifax gives remote access another chance
HALIFAX — After a formal complaint to the state and calls from the community to provide remote access to meetings given coronavirus concerns, the Select Board will give it another try.
At the board's regular meeting on July 7, Select Board Vice Chairman Mitchell Green said the board will experiment with offering phone or video capabilities at future meetings. Previously, he described meetings held by phone alone as not working well and being the impetus for moving to in-person meetings last month.
Paul Blais, meeting moderator, advocated for video access.
"Everybody would get muted," he said, adding that participants could raise their hands to speak and also ask questions by text via a chat window.
The board plans to continue to meet in person but provide ways for the public to remotely participate. Sue Kelly of Halifax thanked board members and asked them not be discouraged with technological glitches.
On July 3, the Select Board held a special meeting to address a formal complaint Dr. Fabio Girelli-Carasi submitted to the Vermont Secretary of State's Office regarding the legality of the June 23 meeting as it was held indoors with no option for the public to participate remotely and included more than 25 people, which was not permitted by the state at the time due to the coronavirus pandemic. A special meeting was held because the board only had 10 days to respond to the complaint.
The Select Board denied any violations had taken place and maintained that fuel bid awards were legitimate. The June 23 meeting was properly warned and a temporary state law dealing with the coronavirus does not require remote access for a meeting held in a physical location, Select Board Chairman Lewis Sumner said.
"The June 23 meeting was an open-air meeting," he said. "The Town Garage bay doors were fully open, and participants could stand either on the bay floor or in the yard outside the doors. Some never left their vehicles."
Sumner said many people were talking over each other that night, making it difficult for attendees to hear discussion on the fuel bids. The board agreed to ratify those votes at the July 7 meeting.
Patrick Eck of Halifax questioned why the board would not want to have a call-in option at a time when public health officials are calling for keeping in-person interactions limited.
"That in my mind creates suspicion," he said. "It seems exclusionary."
Board Vice Chairman Mitchell Green said business could not be conducted during meetings by telephone because participants talked over one another and could not be muted.
Linda Lyon of Halifax said she was not concerned about a land purchase, which was ultimately abandoned, but about it being under the gravel budget.
"What happened for many of us is a breach of trust and this happens," she said. "And it should be and can be forgivable. But you have to earn that."
Lyon suggested that providing remote access to meetings could be a way to develop more trust from the community.
"Let's not negotiate in secret, let's not misrepresent items in the budget — that's behind us," she said. "We can do better."
The board is holding off on deciding whether to appoint a third Select Board member or hold a special election until Brad Rafus officially submits a letter of resignation. He quit the board at an earlier meeting after describing feeling harassed as a result of the deal. He cited threats against his family and seeing people driving down his driveway shining lights into his home.
Rafus and his wife Peggy planned to sell the town about 10 acres of land formerly used as a gravel pit for about $100,000. They decided not to extend a purchase and sale agreement to meet certain contractual conditions. The board formally exited the agreement on July 7.
A group of residents signed a petition calling for a special election to replace Rafus on the board. Sumner said Rafus went on vacation after the meeting in which he resigned and then his 7-year-old granddaughter was killed in an accident so he probably he is not thinking much about the resignation letter. Rafus also serves as the town's road commissioner.
Bob Teree of Halifax expressed concern that a recent report on the land included no analysis on the quality of the soil. He called for the board to pay for a study despite the deal not moving forward.
"It's kind of like beating a dead horse," Green said. "It's over."
The town hired Stevens & Associates of Brattleboro to look into reopening the gravel pit for town use.
"The gravelly course sand on-site may be suitable as a road sub-grade and general fill material," the firm said in its report. "With the
addition of crushing the material with the large cobbles that also existed in the test pits, the material may be suitable as a crushed surface course gravel on roadways. However, we recommend laboratory testing of the material to confirm it will be acceptable for the Town's needs."
The firm estimated 25,000 to 35,000 cubic yards of material would be available from about two acres of the area used historically as a gravel pit, with an additional 75,000 to 100,000 cubic yards of material on three additional acres. Green has said the town would need to get 7,000 cubic yards of material to make the purchase worthwhile.
The firm anticipated that a Act 250 permit from the state would likely be needed for the project.
"Grandfathering of the gravel pit is unlikely because it requires written documentation of excavation since 1968, with no extended lapse in
activity for more than 15 years," states the report.
The firm also suggested having a public meeting to hear concerns from citizens. One major issue cited by residents involved what they described as a lack of transparency on the project.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays
and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.
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