Berlin officials rethink letter urging voters to support water bond
BERLIN – A letter that was approved by the Select Board Monday night and was scheduled to go out in Tuesday’s mail may have to be rewritten amid questions about whether it was appropriate for the town to use taxpayer money to promote the water supply project that will be the subject of a public hearing tonight and a town-wide bond vote next Wednesday.
Suggested by the engineer who has been working on the $5.5 million project and drafted by the chairman of the town’s water supply committee, the brief letter approved by the board opened and closed by urging voters to cast ballots “in favor” of an initiative that it repeatedly described as “important” and “extremely important.”
After obtaining and reviewing a copy of the letter, The Times Argus questioned whether the planned mass mailing was appropriate given the content of the letter and the fact that it would be printed on town letter head, signed by the Select Board, as well as representatives of the local fire department, and mailed to all residents at taxpayers’ expense.
Town Administrator Jeff Schulz said Tuesday morning that thought did cross his mind Monday night though he didn’t raise the issue during a brief discussion of the letter that the board modified to delete two references to tonight’s 6:30 p.m. informational hearing. Those revisions were made because board members acknowledged by the time residents received the letters the hearing, which will be held tonight at Berlin Elementary School, would already be over.
Schulz said Tuesday that he planned a more significant rewrite before mailing the letter that Tom Willard told the board he drafted at the suggestion of representatives of Otter Creek Engineering. Willard is the veteran chairman of the town’s water supply committee and Otter Creek is the engineering firm that has been working on plans to create a municipally owned water system serving the Berlin Four Corners area since 2007.
Schulz was waiting to consult with Town Attorney Rob Halpert before editing the letter, but a state elections official said Tuesday that would be a prudent move.
Kathy Scheele, director of elections and campaign finance with the Secretary of State’s Office, said she would have provided that admittedly “conservative advice” if anyone had asked.
Although it is something of a legal gray area, Scheele said town-sponsored pre-election literature should stick to the facts.
Providing voters with information that may help them make a decision is perfectly acceptable, but openly advocating for a ballot initiative probably isn’t, she said.
“You can urge voters to vote, but you can’t urge them to vote ‘Yes.’” Scheele said, conceding there is little case law on the subject and most of it has to do with school boards.
The closer you get to an election the clearer the law gets.
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