During a special March 11 meeting, the Town of Essex Selectboard unanimously passed the motion to approve the warning for a special town meeting on April 13, 2021 that will make way for a reconsideration vote on merger.
That date was originally scheduled to have town residents who live outside of the village vote on a ballot focused on the Essex Westford School District elections and have Village of Essex Junction residents vote on a different ballot focused on both the school district and village elections.
But both ballots will now include a revote on the selectboard’s merger plan that was originally voted upon at the March Town Meeting -- being defeated by a count of 3,756-3,737.
Since that March 11 meeting, people throughout the village -- who also voted on a separate merger plan drafted by the trustees back in November -- and the rest of the town have asked: Why are we voting on this again?
Members of the public have the right to file a petition for reconsideration within 30 days following an election by obtaining signatures from at least 5% of the municipality’s registered voters.
March 10, the Town of Essex received a petition to have a revote on the merger plan that was struck down at Town Meeting day. Essex resident Annie Cooper spearheaded the petition effort and managed to receive 814 signatures in a matter of days, according to the submitted petition.
“Thanks to the hard work of many, we met the requirements for submitting a petition for a reconsideration of the Plan of Merger to the Town of Essex Selectboard with over 880 signatures. We also submitted a petition to the Village of Essex Junction Trustees with over 430 signatures requesting a vote about separation,” said Cooper.
Should the revote go the other way and see the plan for merger pass, a third, countering revote cannot occur -- at least not right away. Unless approved by the selectboard, questions voted on -- in this case, the selectboard’s plan for merger -- shall not be presented for reconsideration or rescission more than once within a one-year period following the original election date.
Since it is a reconsideration vote, the plan for merger and the charter for the merged community need to be exactly the same as were presented for the Town Meeting vote and cannot be adjusted in any way by the selectboard.
Ballots that are being sent abroad will be emailed, and they must be printed and mailed back, said Town Clerk Susan McNamara-Hill. She stated that the goal was to have one ballot with two sides -- which is in line with what was published online as a sample ballot for both the village and town outside of the village.
"I passionately believe in merger, for all of Essex, for the connectivity and beauty it brings to every facet of who we are, in our entirety," said Cooper. "I felt we all needed to ask ourselves, one final time: Essex, do we want to be a merged, unified community?"
Timing of the revote
The selectboard needed to set the revote for a date within 60 days of the petition being filed. The April 13 option allows it to join the ballots that were already going to be mailed for the school district and village elections which helps save money from conducting a separate mailing for a different date. The cost of mailing ballots for one election is just above $25,000 with all of the envelopes, the ballots, postage, and printing, said Evan Teich, Essex’s unified manager.
There was some contention at the March 11 meeting regarding when the revote could occur based on when the petition was submitted -- some people thinking that state statute wouldn’t allow for it to be as early as April 13 based on a deadline that requires submission no less than 47 days before vote occurs.
Bill Ellis, attorney for the town, said that, “The specific statute regarding rescission says a petition needs to be submitted within 30 days of the vote. So I don’t believe the 47 days applies.”
McNamara-Hill added, “This is a petition for a revote. It is not a petition to put something on the Town Meeting ballot or warning, and the statute is very specific… the petition had to be received within 30 days of the vote, and the board -- once it’s received -- has to set a meeting date to vote on it within 60 days of receipt.”
Ellis noted the statute regarding a petition needing to be filed 47 days before ‘the meeting’ has been interpreted to mean the annual town meeting and only applies to petitions brought forward for those elections.
Petition for separation
There was also a petition presented at the village trustees’ March 9 meeting that asked the board to put a non-binding advisory question on the village-specific ballot which would consider separation.
In a letter and petition sent to McNamara-Hill, Cooper wrote, “Shall the Village of Essex Junction advise the Board of Trustees that if the current Plan for Merger with the Town of Essex does not pass, the Board of Trustees shall draft a charter to create the independent City of Essex Junction, for consideration by the Village of Essex Junction voters no later than November 2021. We advise that the charter shall not include any union municipal districts, interlocal contracts, special tax districts, or other relationships with the Town of Essex for the provision of Village government services. The only exception may be for the consideration of police services.”
While that petition missed the 47-day deadline that mandates a petition’s question be put on a ballot, the trustees discussed and decided among themselves to allow it to be put forth for a vote.
"Merged, we are better. Not merged, it is healthiest, for all of us, to end this draining discussion and the Village will seek to separate," said Cooper. "Which is why there were two petitions. The one to revote merger, with a Hail Mary final vote to end the discussion once and for all, and the one for the village to vote on separation, if this merger fails."