Vt. town meetings to debate guns, oil pipeline
By Kevin O’Connor
STAFF WRITER | January 27,2013
Vermonters wanting to join the national debate on gun control and climate change need go no farther than their March town meeting, where several dozen communities are set to discuss nonbinding resolutions on two of the country’s hottest-button issues.
A still-being-determined number of municipalities will consider whether to ask federal and state legislators to, as specifically worded, “1. Ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines 2. Require a criminal background check for every gun sold in America 3. Make gun trafficking a federal crime, with real penalties for ‘straw purchasers’ (those who arm criminals).”
“Our efforts cannot bring back the 20 innocent children murdered in Newtown, Conn., or the 33 people murdered with guns every day in America,” organizers of Communities Against Assault Weapons say on their petitions and Facebook site. “But we can prevent future tragedies by passing common sense legislation.”
Spurred by the Dec. 14 school shooting, the grass-roots group began meeting weekly in Vermont’s Upper Valley to brainstorm solutions to the nationwide problem of gun violence. It hopes its nonbinding resolution — confirmed for a vote in Hartland, Norwich, Strafford, Thetford and Woodstock and under consideration in several other communities statewide — will be a first step.
“We clearly support hunters and want them to be able to enjoy their sport, but we need a way to say we also have some big problems,” says organizer Laurie Levin, a Norwich lawyer who specializes in mediation. “Every single person who buys a car in Vermont has to register it. Why shouldn’t that be the case with guns? One of the roles we can play is to raise awareness — this is what’s going on, is this what you want?”
The other nonbinding resolution to be debated by multiple municipalities will ask voters to “Keep Vermont Tar Sands Free” by blocking the use of a 1950 pipeline to transport Canadian oil through the state.
Ripton environmental activist Bill McKibben has made headlines for his opposition to a proposed $7 billion, 1,700-mile oil pipeline from Canada’s tar sands to Texas refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. But Vermont organizers at the 350.org climate-change campaign also are concerned about plans to move oil through the state’s Northeast Kingdom for export in Portland, Maine.
The pipeline path runs through the towns of Barton, Burke, Guildhall, Irasburg, Jay, Newport, Sutton, Troy, and Victory and intersects 15 natural waterways that lead to other parts of the state.
As a result, nearly two dozen municipalities will consider voicing “opposition to the transport of tar sands oil through Vermont, and deep concern about the risks of such transport for public health and safety, property values and our natural resources.”
Several communities also will ask voters to consider:
n “That the town shall require every fuel vendor, as a precondition for doing business with the town, to provide complete and current lists of the refinery sources of origin for all fuel the vendor sells, and thereby direct the town’s purchases as much as possible toward vendors whose refinery sources do not use any material derived from tar sands.”
n “That the town encourage the state of Vermont and other northeast states to support policies phasing out fuel purchases as quickly as possible from vendors whose refinery sources of origin use any form of tar sands, and support policies such as a clean fuels standard to help keep such fuels out of the region’s fuel supply.”
n “That the town call upon the Vermont state Legislature and the U.S. Congress to ensure thorough environmental impact reviews of any tar sands-related pipeline proposals, including the health and safety impacts of potential tar sands oil spills, along with clear guidelines for tracking the origins and chemical composition of pipeline contents and feedstocks.”
Pipeline opponents decided to draft their ballot question after seeing other Vermont activists gain voices and votes through similar means — perhaps most successfully, the GE-Free Vermont Campaign that convinced 70 communities to support a nonbinding resolution about genetically engineered food and seeds that, in turn, led the state Legislature to enact the Farmers’ Right to Know GMO Seed Labeling Act in 2004.
The “Keep Vermont Tar Sands Free” item is set to be considered in Burlington, Cabot, Calais, Charlotte, Cornwall, Craftsbury, Fayston, Grand Isle, Greensboro, Hinesburg, Marshfield, Middlebury, Middlesex, Montpelier, Moretown, Plainfield, Putney, Ripton, Waitsfield, Walden, Warren, Westford and Woodbury.
In most cases, petitioners had to collect the signatures of 5 percent of a local electorate to place the resolution on the town meeting ballot. (In Montpelier, for example, that translates into 350 names.)
“Five percent doesn’t seem like much, but when you start going out there with your petitions, it does represent quite a task,” 350.org organizer Andrew Simon says. “It’s a long way to do it, but it’s an effective way to get neighbors talking to neighbors. We feel the biggest obstacle to the oil company’s plan is the voice of the people, and one way to express that effectively in Vermont is town meeting and its tradition of direct democracy.”
Voters in Vermont’s 251 cities and towns will cast ballots on municipal budgets and offices on or before Town Meeting Day on March 5, with nominating petitions for candidates due Monday.