House committee passes Williston charter bill3/19/09

Other proposals face uncertain future

March 19, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Legislation that gives Vermont companies a leg up when bidding on state contracts is “dead in the water,” but other bills prohibiting a chemical used to treat public water supplies and allowing Williston to make charter changes live on.


    File photo
Jim McCullough  

So says Rep. Jim McCullough, D-Williston, who sponsored or co-sponsored each of the bills. He serves in the Fish, Wildlife & Water Resources Committee.

H. 164 would have provided preferential treatment for Vermont firms seeking state contracts. Under the proposal, local companies would win the contract unless an out-of-state firm submitted a bid at least 20 percent lower.

The proposal received a single hearing in the House Government Operations Committee. McCullough said a representative from the Vermont Agency of Transportation testified that the bill was problematic because the federal government, which provides at least partial funding for many contracted projects, views such restrictions as a restraint on interstate trade. There were also worries that the bill would drive up costs.

McCullough said he suggested the bill could be amended to say preferences for local contractors could be overruled by state and federal laws. But that idea failed to gain traction.

“That bill is dead in the water,” McCullough said.

Committee chairwoman Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, concurred.

“It probably won’t make it out of committee this year,” she said.

Two other laws proposed by McCullough have a brighter future.

H. 31, which was co-sponsored by Democrat Terry Macaig, Williston’s other representative in the House, would permit the town to make minor changes to its charter. McCullough and other lawmakers say legislative approval is almost certain.

One change would allow the town manager to hire and fire the zoning administrator. Under state law, the zoning administrator is nominated by the Planning Commission and appointed by the Selectboard to a three-year term.

The change was sought after former zoning administrator D.K. Johnston was charged with stalking and disturbing the peace. Police alleged that he sent dozens of harassing e-mails to a real estate agent who had sold him a condominium. Johnston could not be fired because he had been appointed to the fixed term.

The second change involves a single word in the statute that regulates agreements between municipalities and solid waste processors. The law states that solid waste facilities “may” enter into contracts that provide compensatory payments to towns. The charter change alters that language to say solid waste processors “shall” enter into a contract with the town.

Town Manager Rick McGuire had sought the language revision, saying it would give Williston more clout in future negotiations with solid waste companies.

The charter changes have already been passed by the House Government Operations Committee. The bill is now being considered in the Senate, where it is expected to easily make it out of committee.

“My feeling about charter changes is that unless there is some constitutional issue … we’re just going to ratify them,” said Jeanette White, D-Putney, chairwoman of the Senate Government Operations Committee. “It’s not my place to second-guess local voters.”

Williston voters approved the charter changes by more than a 5-1 margin last November.

The final bill introduced by McCullough addresses long-standing concerns about water treatment procedures in the Champlain Water District, which serves Williston and other area communities. In 2006, the district began using chloramine as a secondary disinfectant.

Since then, a small percentage of the district’s users have complained that the chemical has caused health problems ranging from swollen or itchy rashes to respiratory problems that include coughing or wheezing.

The Vermont Health Department has concluded the chloramine poses no public health threat. But McCullough said in every case symptoms vanished when users stopped drinking and bathing in the water.

His bill, H. 80, imposes a two-year moratorium on use of chloramine in public water supplies.

The idea, McCullough said, is to require water systems to study alternative treatment methods in advance of the release of new federal standards in 2012, “and to give people suffering from this a two-year vacation from the pain.”

McCullough said he has the votes to pass the bill out of his nine-member committee and expects to receive support in the Senate.

He noted that a bill establishing a group to study the issue was approved in the previous legislative session and won support from virtually all lawmakers whose constituents are served by the Champlain Water District.

The study group met throughout the summer but took no action, McCullough said. He hopes the current legislation will prompt lawmakers to act on the health concerns surrounding chloramine, which is used in other Vermont public water systems.