Balloting rejected for major issues (1/21/10)

Board axes town-wide votes on roundabout, ambulance

Jan. 21, 2010

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Two of the most controversial issues facing Williston — starting a homegrown ambulance service and building a roundabout — apparently won’t be on the ballot this March.

The Selectboard last week tentatively decided to fund the new ambulance service through the annual operating budget and to relegate the much-debated roundabout to Town Meeting. The board is scheduled to vote on both issues Monday.

The ambulance service reprises a proposal first made three years ago. Voters in 2007 rejected funding for a pair of ambulances and six new employees. The new proposal also calls for purchasing two ambulances but includes only one or two new employees.

The roundabout, which would be located at the intersection where U.S. 2 meets North Williston and Oak Hill roads, was approved by the Selectboard last year. The decision prompted a petition signed by 456 residents seeking a town-wide vote on the proposal.

Opponents argue that the roundabout is unneeded and unwanted, asserting that it would hurt the historic character of the village while failing to make the sometimes congested and accident-prone intersection safer.

The Selectboard last week debated how to handle each issue. The ambulance discussion provoked a rare testy exchange between board members, according to a recording of the Jan. 14 meeting.

Judy Sassorossi said she wanted to include as part of the 2010-11 operating budget $231,915 for the ambulance service. She and other board members felt the arrangement, which could include a lease-purchase for the ambulances, would give the town a way to back out should revenue fall short of expenses.

“I’m going to say that is 100 percent against my recommendation in feeling what is upfront and honest,” Fehrs said.

“I’m really sorry you feel this is dishonest, I really am,” Sassorossi responded.

“Dishonest may not be the right word,” Fehrs said.

“But it’s what you just said,” Sassorossi retorted.

“I take that back and I apologize,” Fehrs said. “But it’s not upfront.”

“But it is upfront, Jeff, it’s in the budget,” Sassorossi said. “It’s a public document.”

Fehrs asserted that putting a new service in the budget rather than seeking voter approval represented a “major shift” in how the town does business by cutting residents out of the decision.

Majority favors lease

Fire Chief Ken Morton had urged board members to include the ambulance service in the budget instead of seeking voter approval. He projected that revenue from the service will cover expenses, including payments on the ambulances. Each patient would be charged $450 or $550 depending on the level of medical care.

Board member Ted Kenney, while acknowledging Fehrs’ point about being forthright with voters, said the ambulance proposal did not represent an entirely new service. Replacing services now provided by out-of-town rescue squads, it would be run out of the fire station and use existing full-time and on-call personnel to round out staffing.

“It’s not in my mind equivalent to creating a police department, creating a fire department from whole cloth,” Kenney said. “I don’t consider this to be a radically different thing.”

The other board members, Chris Roy and Terry Macaig, said last week that they favored putting the ambulance service on the ballot. But they changed course after learning that a lease-purchase agreement could include a cancellation clause.

“If the lease option was simply being used to hide an expenditure, I would have a real problem with it,” Roy said.

Roy concluded after reviewing information on the lease that it was “the more prudent option.”

Macaig said during the meeting that leasing had a “better feel.” In an interview Monday, he also said he changed his mind after looking closely at how leasing would work.

But what about voters, who had a direct say on the issue in 2007? Macaig said the ambulance service this time “is a totally different proposal” that pays for itself.

Roundabout headed to Town Meeting?

Voters will apparently get a direct say in the roundabout, but based on past history far fewer will weigh in because the decision will be made at Town Meeting instead of by Australian ballot.

Last March, with just 15 percent of registered voters going to the polls, a total of 1,114 ballots were cast. Only about 75 people attended Town Meeting, which each year is held the day before balloting and usually draws no more than 100 or so residents.

The board only briefly considered the roundabout question. The matter was apparently settled with a legal opinion from Hinesburg attorney Joe Fallon.

He advised the town to place the question before voters at Town Meeting rather than through Australian balloting. State laws classify such an issue as a non-binding “public question,” Fallon wrote in an e-mail to Town Manager Rick McGuire. Because Williston’s town charter does not specifically state that such questions should be settled with an Australian ballot, he wrote, the issue should instead be decided at Town Meeting.

Board members murmured their assent of that opinion at last week’s meeting.

The Selectboard could in fact ignore the petition and refuse to place the issue before voters at all. State law gives the board the final word on non-budget issues. And even then, state and federal highway officials have the last say because it is a federally funded project on a state highway.

Williston resident Ginger Isham said she and others who organized the petition drive wanted a town-wide vote on the roundabout.

“I’m disappointed the Selectboard is not going to put the vote on the Australian ballot,” she said. “I think they know that was our intention.”


The Selectboard is scheduled to make a final decision about what will be on the ballot and on the Town Meeting agenda at its meeting on Monday, Jan. 25. The session is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. at Williston Town Hall.