In this week's Seven Days, I wrote about Colchester's upcoming special election on Oct. 4 to decide whether the town should buy the 27-acre Camp Holy Cross property from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington for $4.5 million. The diocese is selling off the lakefront real estate on Malletts Bay to help pay settlements to victims of its priest sex-abuse cases in Vermont. To read that original story, click here.
Apparently, Town Manager Al Voegele was less than pleased with Tuesday's announcement by the Colchester Community and Economic Development Advisory Council (CEDAC) that it was formally recommending that citizens vote against purchasing the property — in direct contradiction to the selectboard's own position. In emails and postings on Front Porch Forum, CEDAC Chair James Ehlers and Vice Chair Dave Usher called the potential Holy Cross purchase "fiscally imprudent" and the current time frame for evaluating it "untenable given the scope of the commitment at hand."
In an email response Thursday to CEDAC's announcement, Voegele demanded the resignation of the panel's chair and vice chair.
"CEDAC, as an instrument of the municipality, has no authority to express a public opinion counter to the policy of the selectboard," Voegele wrote. "The selectboard has been very clear that their goal as a board is to inform the public of the opportunities and liabilities of buying [Camp Holy Cross]. The Selectboard’s goal is to turn out a large number of citizens to vote. The Board has established a citizens committee to develop options for public discussion."
Voegele goes on to write that, "Your actions undercut the hard work of this citizens committee and the selectboard’s goal in having a community discussion unbiased by municipal government opinion. Finally, I am always fine with civil discourse but I will never bend to or accept a threat by anyone against myself as a person, as town manager, or as representative of the Colchester Government. Your most recent email demands that you now resign your membership in CEDAC."
Voegele didn't specify the nature of that "threat," but he's asked CEDAC to meet sometime next week to discuss this matter further. In the meantime, Ehler and others have raised another issue about the upcoming vote: On Town Meeting Day in 2010, Colchester voters gave the selectboard authority to begin negotiations with the diocese. But did they actually give the selectboard authority to enter a legally binding deal with the Catholic Church?
Not according to Colchester resident Brad Fredericks, who claims that the selectboard exceeded its legal authority granted by the March 2, 2010 ballot item, "which was solely intended to authorize preliminary negotiations for the property and was not intended to allow them to enter into a purchase and sales agreement."
As Fredericks points out in an email yesterday to Seven Days, "The March ballot item was represented to voters as an authorization for the selectboard to initiate exploratory talks to determine the price the diocese would offer the property to the town, at which point a second vote would be held to determine if voters wanted to pursue a purchase. In fact, no negotiation with the diocese took place — the selectboard submitted a single bid for $4.5 million and that bid was accepted."
According to Selectboard member Marc Landry, if Colchester voters reject the purchase plan on Oct. 4, the town will get its $10,000 deposit returned, with no penalty.*
Fredericks, who emphasizes that he's not an attorney but has consulted with one on this matter, notes that in contract law, courts typically define "preliminary negotiations" as non-binding discussions that do not constitute a contract or agreement of any sort.
Not so, says Town Manager Voegele. Voegele says he checked with the town's attorney, Tom Walsh, and remains confident that, "the town selectboard is well within the law and within [its] privilege under the law."
Be that as it may, should voters give their thumbs up to this deal, the town could face a lawsuit from those who contend that this deal is a lemon and should be deep-sixed. Should such a suit be filed, questions may also arise about the town's decision to retain the Burlington public relations firm PMG for $15,000. Ostensibly, the two-month contract is meant to spread the word via social media sites about the upcoming vote. However, critics contend that the informational campaign is straying into the realm of advocacy for a "yes" vote.
Paying a firm $15K to write posts on Facebook, Twitter and Front Porch Forum rather than spending that money on a comprehensive feasibility study of the property's potential uses, liabilities and limitations, is also raising eyebrows among many Internet-savvy Colchester residents. Perhaps not surprising from a town where you can't even pay your property tax bill online, a situation Voegele himself bemoans.
*A previous version of this blog post mistakenly reported that the town would forfeit the deposit if voters reject the ballot measure.