Town Meeting Medley: Climate Change, Schools and Poundkeepers | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Town Meeting Medley: Climate Change, Schools and Poundkeepers

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As always, Vermonters will use Town Meeting Day to debate new fire trucks, school budgets and selectboard races. But for Peacham road foreman Jeremy Withers, March 5 may yield free cups of coffee.

Tom Galinat, Peacham's clerk and treasurer, wanted to add "a little zest" to the oft-dry town report, so he used it to encourage residents to reward Withers for his labor.

"[H]is willingness to work with the Treasurer saves all of us money," Galinat wrote in the report, praising Withers' "continued patience" and cooperation. "We should all buy him and his crew a coffee," Galinat concluded. "I think they like pumpkin spice."

Galinat told Seven Days that he didn't, in fact, know whether Withers actually likes pumpkin spice but bragged that the reference was the best line in the report.

A surprised Withers couldn't think of anything that he had done to save the town money.

But as for cups of coffee? "I couldn't say no to them," he said.

Peacham may be the only place in Vermont where residents will consider rewarding their town officials with pumpkin spice java, but other towns will take up issues both contentious and unconventional.

Here's a sampling of what's in the offing this year.

Bagging the bag?

Retired college professor Amy McAninch read a lot about climate change last year and decided to act. People "should be terrified" of looming environmental catastrophes, the 62-year-old Middlebury resident said.

She teamed up with Middlebury College student Amelia Miller to ask the town selectboard to ban single-use plastic bags. Since last May, the women and a handful of other residents have worked to secure support from local businesses and collect signatures from 5 percent of registered voters; the latter was needed to get the advisory measure on the ballot.

"The use-it-once-and-throw-it-away mentality, it's 20th-century thinking," McAninch said. "We just can't do that anymore."

Last year, Brattleboro became the first Vermont town to pass such a resolution. Burlington voters will consider a similar measure that would also advise banning additional single-use plastic items, including straws.

The issue is getting attention at the state level, as well. Addison County lawmakers have introduced legislation that would ban an array of single-use plastics.

Rep. Robin Scheu (D-Middlebury) said that municipal efforts were not the sole reason she introduced her bill, but they did influence her. "There's that critical mass that's building around it," Scheu said. "Why not just do it on a statewide basis and make it easier for everyone?"

Climate Control

Brattleboro will vote on a practical approach to mitigating climate change: turning down the heat. An advisory ballot question asks the town to adopt "common sense practices" to reduce use of fossil fuels in municipal buildings.

The resolution includes advice for town employees, such as "lowering the thermostat setting during the winter to a significant degree and wearing long-johns, sweaters and other warm clothing."

In summer, workers should wear "cool clothing — avoiding layered suits and blazers" to discourage use of air conditioning.

Nonprofit Brattleboro Common Sense, which "advances common sense and fairness in town government," collected the signatures to put the question on the ballot.

"We are facing a climate emergency," the group wrote in a press release. "Localities and individuals must act fast to reduce energy usage."

The ballot item also requests that the town fill an open slot for an energy coordinator, who would track whether or not the offices are chilly enough in winter.

Town Clerk Hilary Francis declined to offer her opinion of the question but said that town employees do not typically wear layered suits or blazers to work in the summer.

The ballot question will be decided on March 23, when the town has its "representative town meeting." It's a unique Brattleboro institution: On March 5, residents elect representatives who, along with local officials, then vote on some measures on March 23, according to Francis.

Maybe it'll be just a tad warmer by then.

Third Time's the Charm?

The Town of Cabot is voting — for the third time — on whether to close its high school. Residents who petitioned to put the question on the ballot cited a lack of educational options for the 42 enrolled students and say they'd be better off at other schools.

Vicky Tebbetts helped lead the effort.

"It's the issue of opportunity: the desire to have more things for children to choose from, more teachers, more kids in their classes, high school sports," she said.

Her son, a high school sophomore, hasn't been able to take a biology class, Tebbetts said, and he'd like the option of more extracurricular activities.

Residents haven't embraced the idea in the past.

The town voted against shutting the school in 2013. Voters also opposed a merger with Danville and Twinfield in 2017 that would have closed the school.

If this item passes, Cabot students would be able to choose from schools around Vermont, and the town would pay their tuition. But it would also be pricier. Superintendent Mark Tucker analyzed the proposal and found that, even after the savings from closing the school, it would cost $424,000 more to tuition kids elsewhere.

School board chair Chris Tormey opposes the measure, citing the school's value to the community and the high price tag to close it. He also thinks the school can attract more kids in the future.

Enrollment, though, is about half of what it was a decade ago, Tormey said; some are choosing to attend school elsewhere. Others are moving away.

The debate has been divisive. "It's been tough on our little town," Tebbetts said. But, she added, "I think it's worth it for our kids."

Onion Honor

Two Winooski city councilors are running for the mayor's seat — and working to distinguish themselves on the campaign trail.

Kristine Lott, 33, and Eric Covey, 31, both talk about the need to address the high cost of living in the Onion City and to create a long-term plan for infrastructure improvements and development projects downtown.

They're running to succeed former mayor Seth Leonard, who stepped down in January to take a new job. Winooski has a weak-mayor system of government, meaning the candidate elected to the part-time, $1,400-a-year position govern the 7,200 residents by force of personality rather than formal authority.

Both described Winooski as a vibrant, growing city at a juncture — which each say they are uniquely positioned to help navigate.

Covey, the chief of staff for Secretary of State Jim Condos, said he'd bring his state government experience to the mayor's job. His Montpelier connections would prove helpful for lobbying or building statewide partnerships, he said.

Covey said he'd focus on development "that doesn't break the bank" and work to slow gentrification by increasing the affordable housing stock.

Lott, who works remotely for an education nonprofit, said that as mayor she would develop a long-term plan to fund infrastructure projects. She'd include residents and local commissions in the decision-making process and encourage councilors to attend community events.

The mayor's job, Lott said, is facilitating public engagement: "I'm not coming into it saying, 'Here are the answers; here are the specific solutions,'" she said.

Race in Rutland

When David Allaire first ran for Rutland mayor in 2017, he earned national news coverage for his platform opposing incumbent Chris Louras' plan to bring 100 Syrian refugee families to the city.

Two years later, Allaire is facing a challenger. This time around, he doesn't want to talk about refugees, at least not directly.

"The key points of my campaign still ring true," he said. "People are continuing to look for an administration and a mayor that are going to be open and transparent and interact with the taxpayers and citizens."

That's an allusion to Louras' failure to publicly share plans about settling the Syrian families in the Marble City.

Allaire touted his work completing languishing projects, including the town pool and a new park. He vowed to move forward with economic development proposals and marketing the city to new businesses and residents.

His opponent isn't bringing up the refugee issue either. Michel Messier, a fiscal conservative, said he's running to lower property taxes and improve town roads. When Messier learned of last year's 12 percent hike in town property taxes, he jumped into the race. He's also running for town treasurer.

"No one has brought [the refugee issue] to my direct attention," he said, though the issue caused a bitter divide in the city.

Residents' main concerns? "The taxes and the condition of the roads," Messier said.

Allaire, too, said Rutland residents have moved on — partly because President Donald Trump effectively halted Louras' plan to bring the refugees.

Political Cartoons

Barre City Council candidate Sue Higby is using the funnies to garner support. The executive director of Studio Place Arts in Barre has teamed up with cartoonist Robert Brunelle to campaign with comics.

The incumbent has released three "Sue Says" strips. They justify Higby's "no" vote on a local teen center, discuss her plan for the town's vacant homes and thank city employees for their work.

"I decided that cartoons were a way to reach people with snippets of really important information that would actually be read," she said.

The second-term incumbent is facing a challenge from John Steinman, who also ran an unsuccessful campaign for the legislature last November.

The cartoons, Higby said, keep voters interested and the tone of the campaign lighthearted. "I tend not to take myself too seriously," she said.

Doggone?

Williston voters will decide on whether to eliminate the position of poundkeeper. But they shouldn't worry about stray dogs running wild at Taft Corners, Town Manager Rick McGuire said.

The town doesn't have a pound, and the position has been vacant for the 21 years that McGuire has worked for Williston.

The police department contracts with a private service in Colchester to pick up and shelter stray dogs. Abolishing the poundkeeper job is more bureaucratic than political, McGuire said: "It doesn't make sense to have that requirement in the town charter."

Williston voters have previously agreed to remove the posts of "inspector of lumber, shingles and wood" and "weighers of coal."

McGuire expects this measure to pass easily. But, he added, "You never know."

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