Williamstown bond petition is a numbers game
WILLIAMSTOWN — A petition being circulated has raised questions about how many signatures are needed to force a second vote on a bond issue that was narrowly approved in Williamstown less than a month ago.
Is it 5 percent of the local electorate, or 10 percent?
That depends on who you ask and where you look in state statutes, because unlike the signatures on the petition, it isn’t black and white.
Organizers of the effort to challenge voters’ 298-283 approval on Town Meeting Day of a bond issue to construct a $2.5 million public safety building have until Thursday at 4:30 p.m. to turn in the petition.
Petitioners claim they are comfortably over the 5 percent target — 102 of the town’s 2,031 registered voters — that they were aiming for and that everyone, from the Select Board on down, assumed they needed as recently as Friday.
However, that changed Friday afternoon based on the briefest of emails from the town’s bond counsel, Paul Giuliani.
In one of four short sentences, Giuliani suggested forcing a revote on the bond issue could require a petition signed by 10 percent of the local electorate. Though his opinion had petition-wary town officials breathing a little easier over the weekend, it had an election official from the secretary of state’s office scrambling for answers and the executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns scratching his head Monday.
Is it 5 percent or 10 percent?
Giuliani concedes that depends on the wording of a petition that he hasn’t seen. He said a petition to rescind is “a different animal” from a petition to reconsider, and he stressed that his emailed observation assumed the petition being circulated in Williamstown is asking for reconsideration of the positive bond vote.
According to Giuliani, such a petition would require the signatures of 10 percent of the local electorate — a figure that can be traced to a section of Title 24 that doesn’t say anything about reconsideration or rescission, but does outline the ways bond issues can be placed on a ballot to begin with.
The section states in pertinent part: “On a petition signed by at least 10 percent of the voters of a municipal corporation, the proposition of incurring a bonded debt to pay for public improvements shall be submitted to the qualified voters thereof at any annual or special meeting to be held for that purpose.”
A petition in that circumstance assumes that the local legislative body — in this case the Select Board — is either unwilling or unable to legally warn the bond vote on its own and establishes a higher bar for exposing town taxpayers to long-term debt than the 5 percent threshold that applies to all other ballot initiatives.
Giuliani conceded the statute is silent when it comes to reconsideration and rescission, but he believes — at least with regard to reconsideration — that a case can be made for the higher figure.
“If you need 10 percent to bring the proposition in the first place, then it makes sense you need 10 percent for reconsideration,” he said.
Not according to VLCT Executive Director Steve Jeffrey, who said the section of the law Giuliani cited doesn’t trump a provision of state law that spells out in detail the process for petitioning for a revote.
“I don’t see how that would apply to reconsideration,” Jeffrey said of the provision of Title 24 cited by Giuliani.
Jeffrey said he would turn to Title 17, which states in part: “If a petition requesting reconsideration or rescission of a question considered or voted on at a previous annual or special meeting is filed with the clerk of the municipality within 30 days following the date of that meeting, the legislative body shall provide for a vote by the municipality in accordance with the petition within 60 days of the submission at an annual or special meeting duly warned for that purpose.”
That portion of the law doesn’t include any exception for bond votes and does indicate that — barring a voter-approved increase that hasn’t occurred in Williamstown — the signatures of 5 percent of the local electorate are all that is required to force a revote.
Though one election official struggled with the question earlier in the day, Deputy Secretary of State Brian Levin said that — bond issue or no — Jeffrey was looking at the right portion of the law.
“The default is 5 percent,” Levin said.
Giuliani said that hasn’t always been the view of the secretary of state’s office and cited at least one instance when a water district in Vergennes turned down a petition for reconsideration that was signed by less than 10 percent of its voters.
However, Giuliani said the town hasn’t asked his advice and that he was ill-equipped to offer it without reviewing a petition that hasn’t yet been submitted.
“There are a whole bunch of variables I would want to know before I gave a recommended course of action,” he said.
What would Jeffrey advise the board to do if it receives a valid petition signed by more than 5 percent but less than 10 percent of the town’s registered voters before Thursday’s deadline?
“At that point, if I was the Select Board, I’d go ahead and warn the (special town) meeting,” he said.
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