ESSEX -- “Do you really want to merge?”
That blunt question was posed to the Town of Essex Selectboard Tuesday by chair Elaine Haney, during a joint meeting with the Village of Essex Junction Board of Trustees. Recent discussions around the topic have dragged for months, as have the lengthy board meetings.
The question also came on the heels of conversation surrounding the idea of taking items that were going to be included in the draft of the potentially-merged municipality’s charter and instead making them separate items on the ballot in November, as the selectboard members agreed the full merger wouldn't be ready for a vote by the August 24 deadline.
The use of Australian ballot for the town’s budget vote, instead of voting from the floor during Town Meeting Day, is one of the items that may appear on the ballot in November. Even if merger is on the ballot, the measure to vote by pre-printed ballot may appear separately in case merger isn't approved.
Similarly, a revised version of a proposal to divide selectboard membership evenly between the town and village -- listed as Article V on this past-March’s ballot and commonly referred to as “3+3” -- is also being considered as a separate item in November. Although Essex voters approved the measure, charter changes must be approved by the Vermont legislature, and 3+3 never made it out of committee to a vote. The revisions would address concerns raised by the Vermont House Committee on Government Operations.
Nearly 10 seconds of silence filled the virtual room following Haney’s question on Tuesday evening, with board members possibly being reluctant to be the first to answer, thinking about how they wanted to respond, or just trying to unmute themselves. Andy Watts was the first to speak. Vince Franco was absent from the meeting.
“I'm still okay with merging,” said Watts. “It’s a matter of how we get there,” he added -- that being a paraphrase of what he has said publicly before, including at the previous week’s meeting.
Haney was again blunt, seemingly wanting to cut to the chase and make sure the board’s time and effort was not going to waste. “What does that mean?” she asked.
“It means that it actually looks like we're negotiating,” Watts replied. “We're not dealing with anything, we're just saying everything stays the same; it just gets mashed together… There's no give-and-take, there's nothing like that. It's all: this is the way it's going to be, and we got to figure out how to convince the voters to support it. That's the way it feels to me, and that's how it feels to a lot of people. So, I don't know.”
Haney and Watts went back and forth discussing whether or not specific topics or pieces of the drafted charter were formally decided upon before moving on to the next selectboard member.
“I absolutely do want to merge,” said Patrick Murray. “I've seen the economies of scale that you get with merged communities, the school being one of them; that has worked extremely well. There are difficulties at the beginning, of course… but I think the fact remains that, at least in my view, having one unified 21,000-person community in Vermont is a big deal; it's attractive to businesses, it's attractive to residents.”
The newest member of the board rounded out the conversation.
“I would have automatically, many years ago, said ‘no,’” said Dawn Hill-Fleury. “When I came back this time, I came back with a willingness, more of a willingness, to listen to both sides… I don't think we're quite there yet.” She went on to say, “I think it still needs a lot more work, but I am still collecting information from people. I've asked this question a lot of times lately, and I'm listening because I'm trying to learn. At this point, I don't think we're ready, but I don't think we should stop working on it.”
The village trustees then spoke up with some thoughts of their own.
“That was a fascinating look into the soul of the selectboard,” interjected Vice President George Tyler -- as President Andrew Brown was not present. “Maybe the trustees would like to have a couple of responses?”
“I actually just want to say thank you to Elaine for asking that question,” Amber Thibeault first said, “because I actually was thinking the same exact kind of thoughts, and there were a lot of really good points that were made. I think we've made significant progress on the charter. I think we spent a lot of time going through… minor issues that were in there. We, obviously, have not hit the big points; we really haven't, but I look forward to getting to that and having those conversations.”
“I agree,” Raj Chawla followed. “I think it sounds like everybody still wants to move forward. I think that's really encouraging. I think we should just keep going. I think the hard stuff’s coming, but I think it's doable… We hear negative a lot, and I think there's a lot of positive out there. And it sounds a little utopian, maybe, but I think there's still a lot of people I hear from… that just want this done already. And they're just waiting for something to see, and I think we can get there.”
The last of the trustees to speak on the issue was Dan Kerin -- who alluded to the possibility of the town and village separating after the trustees’ meeting earlier in the evening included a letter signed by 27 village residents which asked for the financial ramifications of the village becoming its own municipality.
“I appreciate Elaine posing that question to the board,” said Kerin. “And the elephant in the room is: where is the tax disparity?” Kerin would continue to say, “I'd rather see the community merged as opposed to separate… There's a lot of delay in the process for one reason or another, and ultimately that delay is intentional -- in my opinion -- to ultimately not have this move forward… Status quo is not tolerable.”
While the meeting’s agenda had “potential action on date of merger vote” included, the trustees asked for more time to decide about November as they saw their board being a meeting behind since President Brown wasn’t in attendance that night during their individual session that occurred before the joint meeting.