Roundabout opponents submit petition (11/25/09)

Opponents seek Town Meeting referendum

Nov. 25, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Foes of a proposed roundabout in Williston Village have gathered more than enough signatures to get the controversial traffic-calming measure on the ballot.

The recently submitted petition includes 456 names. Five percent of registered voters — 371 in Williston — had to sign to qualify for the Town Meeting ballot in March.

But the question — “Shall the Town of Williston replace the four-way stop at the intersection of Route 2, Oak Hill Road and North Williston Road with construction of a round-about?” — would be strictly advisory.

The Selectboard retains the authority to ignore such votes. Under state law, only on fiscal matters such as the municipal budget can petitions prompt a binding vote.

In fact, the Selectboard is not even required to place the question on the ballot, according to state officials.

The town consulted with Hinesburg attorney Joseph Fallon, who said the board is obligated to include the requested language on the ballot as long as the petition is signed by the required number of voters and submitted 40 days before town meeting.

But Secretary of State Deb Markowitz said the board, when approving the town meeting warning that establishes what is on the ballot, can exclude such petitioned advisory questions.

Kathy DeWolfe, director of elections and campaign finance, seconded that opinion. She said the statute states that petitioned items “shall” be placed on the ballot, but case law has established the provision applies only to issues where voters have the final say.

Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig said he and other board members would probably approve the ballot question. After all, he said, the board has always welcomed input on the issue, and the ballot results will show where all voters — not just those who signed the petition — stand on the issue.

The question of who decides what on the roundabout is just the latest twist in a proposed road improvement and subsequent petition drive that has proceeded by fits and starts.

The debate about how to deal with commute-hour backups and accidents at the intersection where U.S. 2 meets Oak Hill and North Williston roads simmered for years. It finally came to a boil in March when the Selectboard chose a roundabout rather than a traffic signal to ease congestion and decrease collisions.

That prompted vocal opposition and a petition drive. But because the petition did not ask for a vote, it resulted in no action by the town. A second petition was circulated, this one vetted by town officials.

But even that did not prevent problems. Town Manager Rick McGuire said the way the petition is worded will leave it unclear exactly where voters stand.

“Unfortunately, the warning mixes two issues: keeping the intersection the same and one option of changing it,” McGuire wrote in a memo to the Selectboard. “What happens if someone supports changing the intersection but just doesn’t like a roundabout?”

Ginger Isham, who led the petition drive, said it was too late to make changes by the time she learned wording was a problem.

“We had over 100 signatures,” she said. “We weren’t going to start over again.”

Though Selectboard members may welcome voters’ guidance, answers to frequently asked election questions posted on the Secretary of State’s Web site warned that such scenarios can have unintended consequences.

“It is wise to consider whether the board will follow the ‘advice’ of the voters on an advisory article, before adding it to the warning,” the Web site said. “It can be very frustrating to voters to vote on an issue at town meeting and then find that the board is not going to follow the advice of the vote.”