Voters packed the room and spilled out into the entryway at Searsburg’s Town Meeting Monday evening, forcing some voters to shout their ayes and nays from outside the room.
Although the valley’s smallest town often has the highest voter turnout, several controversial articles on the warning may have swelled the ranks at this year’s meeting.
In the evening’s biggest upset, voters reversed last year’s nonbinding resolution to oppose PPM Energy’s proposed wind generation project in Searsburg and Readsboro. In a paper ballot, the town voted to support the project 29 to 16, a substantial margin.
But the vote wasn’t without some controversy. Moderator Gary Sage told voters that the secretary of state’s office had advised the town that wording of the article was ambiguous. Article 16 asked voters to “see if the town will vote to determine whether the voters approve of, or are opposed to” the project. According to the secretary of state, the language could mean the town was holding a vote on whether to have a vote. Additionally, Sage said, they suggested the article should be reworded so as to require a “yes” or “no” answer. “The secretary of state and the town attorney say the article could be construed as too confusing and should be passed over,” Sage told the crowd.
But voters weren’t in the mood to drop the question. “I think it’s a good idea to vote on this,” said Ron Lemaire. “We have over 40 voters here.”
Searsburg resident Gerry DeGray, who petitioned the article, noted that passage of the article wouldn’t tie the selectboard’s hands in negotiating with PPM for tax mitigation. Lemaire said outcome of the vote would direct the selectboard in providing input to the public service board.
Urging voters to oppose the project, DeGray said the project would mean years of construction in town and would adversely affect wildlife and local residents. “There are 60 dwellings in this town within one mile of this facility,” DeGray said. “Whenever they’re turning, they’re going to hear them. And some people are going to have to watch them. Some people are going to be affected by shadow flicker as the sun drops down behind these blades.”
DeGray said the siting of turbines in Searsburg would set a bad precedent for how public lands may be used in the future. DeGray said a vote to oppose the project would send a message to the national forest service and the public service board. “There have been 19,700 acres of national forest in the state of Vermont that have been tested and found suitable for wind development,” he said. “This could turn most of Vermont into miles and miles of industrial wind turbines on our ridgelines. This could have a negative economic impact on Vermont and trickle down to all of our jobs.”
One resident pointed out that there were a number of health problems associated with electrical transmission lines, including low bone density. “Are you ready for a situation where you fall and break a leg because the windmills and static electricity have weakened your bones?”
“There are thousands of windmills in Texas and California; are there people dropping dead out there, or do they have bone problems out there?” countered Searsburg Road Commissioner Pete Janovsky.
Another resident asked the selectboard if there would be any benefit to the town from the proposed wind facility. “Well, you probably wouldn’t be paying any town tax,” said selectboard chair Stan Florence. “At the present time they’re offering $240,000 per year, and that’s just about the same amount as the budget you approved tonight.”
“I’d just as soon die for that,” quipped Janovsky.
Searsburg resident Andy Florence said it is everyone’s responsibility to take steps in reducing carbon emissions and divert energy dollars from OPEC countries. “Every ounce of oil we burn puts carbons in the atmosphere and increases global warming. It’s not just bad for us, it’s bad for the world. Every windmill that goes in here is going to save the world a little bit. If we can’t do our part, who’s going to?”
“But what’s it going to cost us?” asked Denise Foery.
“Less taxes,” muttered one voter.
DeGray appealed to people’s sense of community to oppose the project. “If I had a neighbor that was going to receive some serious negative impact and have their quality of life affected, I would vote to oppose this for that reason alone,” he said. “We’re all residents of this town, we’re all neighbors, and we have to watch out for each other.”
The town turned down article 15, asking voters to give “limited authority” to the selectboard to negotiate with PPM Energy. If approved, the town’s selectboard would be authorized to negotiate, but any contract would have to be ratified by voters at an annual or special Town Meeting. There was some confusion over the necessity of the article. Several people pointed out that the selectboard already had authority to negotiate contracts. Some suggested that, by passing the article, every contract the board negotiated would have to be approved by voters – even a contract for cemetery mowing, for example.
Sage said the article simply provided the selectboard with instructions to let voters weigh in on the PPM contract. “What this says is that they can go negotiate, but they have to bring it back to us,” he said.
But voter Mike Johnson said the article was “vague and controls something that shouldn’t be controlled.”
Florence said the selectboard intended to bring the deal to voters regardless of the outcome of the article. Voters finally decided to drop the discussion and voted to pass over the article.
Under Article 11, another petitioned article, voters rejected a proposed change from an appointed road commissioner to an elected commissioner. Searsburg resident Bill Hurley asked why the town should make the move. “Pete, you’re happy the way it is, right?” he asked. “You’ve done a great job. It sounds to me like someone’s looking for your job.”
“Good,” said Janovsky.
Johnson pointed out that the road commissioner could change from year to year under the proposed change. “You could have anyone in there, people that don’t know a damn thing about roads,” he said. Lemaire said he didn’t think anything would change. Dan Hollister pointed out that the field of candidates would be limited to Searsburg residents. “If you don’t live in town, you wouldn’t be eligible.”
Janovsky said an elected position was too uncertain. “It’s hard to get someone to take a year-to-year job,” he said. “If this was an elected position, I probably wouldn’t still be here today.”
But another petitioned article, raising the number of selectboard members from three to five, found favor with voters. Most of the concerns about the idea centered on the cost of two more board members and the difficulty of finding two more volunteers in a town of about 80 residents. “It’s hard enough to get anyone to run for office as it is, let alone two more positions,” Johnson said. “Everyone that holds a town office has two, three, or five positions. How are we going to fill these positions?”
Johnson said there was no money in the budget for two more selectboard members.
But Sage, who petitioned the article, noted that every year there were unbudgeted expenses that the town managed to pay. “There’s all kinds of money that has been spent that wasn’t budgeted,” he said. “We’ve spent more money this year that wasn’t budgeted than you’ll spend for two selectboard members.”
Sage said the additional selectboard members would “make for better decisions.” Searsburg resident Tella Penson, former chair of the Wilmington Selectboard, said having five members would be good for the town. “I think it’s a good choice, it brings in different points of view,” she said. “You may have an idea that I wouldn’t have. The reason you’re there is to do the best for everyone in town.”
The measure passed 26 to 19 in a paper ballot.
During the school portion of the meeting, Representative John Moran updated voters on his efforts in the Legislature.
Searsburg experiences some of southern Vermont’s most treacherous winter road conditions, and residents expressed their concerns about the state’s commitment to maintaining the two state roads that are the main arteries of the town. Moran said there was a “perfect storm” brewing over state transportation system maintenance. “We have a deteriorating infrastructure, no funds, and high costs,” Moran said. “The administration plans to cut 400 positions, but they’re not telling us which positions they plan to eliminate.”
Sage said the Legislature and administration should cease their political bickering, and work together for Vermont citizens. “I’d like the Legislature to stop blaming the governor for everything, and the governor to stop blaming the Legislature for everything,” he said. “That’s why we’re in the position we’re in now. It’s time for you guys to sit down, get serious, and listen to these people out here. We’re tired of it.”
In other Town Meeting action, voters approved $251,250 in municipal spending, a $288,842 school budget, and funded requests from several charitable organizations.
In the school portion of the meeting, Gary Sage was elected to the school board by paper ballot, 39 in favor and 9 opposed.
In local balloting on Tuesday, a whopping 63 of the town’s 74 voters turned out to the polls.
In the town’s only contested race, Walter Kenney was returned to the selectboard for another three-year stint with 46 votes to challenger Bill Hurley’s 16 votes. Gary Sage was re-elected town moderator with 19 write-in votes, and Josie Kilbride took a three-year lister spot with 57 votes. Chris Reynolds garnered 55 votes for town agent, and Tina Reynolds received 57 votes for town auditor. Jack Kilbride kept his position as tax collector with 55 votes, and Rosemarie Blair will be the town’s grand juror with 45 votes. In an unusual voting anomaly, although there was no candidate for town constable, the incumbent constable Jack Kilbride and Dan Hollister each received 17 write-in votes. According to state statutes, the board of civil authority is required to petition the superior court to request a recount, but with only 63 voters, the chance of a miscount isn’t very likely. It may also be possible for one of the write-in candidates to decline the position, leaving the other to fill the position.
In primary voting, Hillary Clinton topped Searsburg results with 22 votes, Barack Obama received 10 votes, and John Edwards got two votes. In the Republican race, John McCain took Searsburg with 11 votes, followed by two for Mike Huckabee, two for Mitt Romney, and one for Rudy Giuliani.
By Mike Eldred
6 March 2008
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