Rockingham Merger Moratorium off the Town Meeting agenda
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | January 25,2014
BELLOWS FALLS — There will be no article on the Rockingham town meeting warning asking voters whether to bar further merger discussions for three years.
On a 3-2 vote, a sharply divided Rockingham Select Board voted Thursday night not to include the petitioned article, over the protests of a group of residents who had gathered more than 250 signatures in support of such a vote.
“This is a slap in the face of voters,” said Bellows Falls resident Judy Lidie, who started the petition drive about two weeks ago. “You insult them with your decisions.”
Lidie and others said that the relatively large number of residents signing the petition was a strong indication that people wanted the Select Board to slow down on the issue of merging the Rockingham and Bellows Falls governments.
Many said they were categorically opposed to a merger plan, but that they wanted it studied in a deliberate and transparent way.
Joel Love, who is running for a seat on the Select Board, predicted that Selectman Thomas MacPhee and Selectwoman Susan Hammond would lose their re-election bids over the issue.
Love said the proposed merger moratorium would simply slow down the timetable of considering the merger, and he said the plan being conceived in secrecy had made many residents suspicious.
“There’s something wrong here,” Love said, adding that he wasn’t necessarily opposed to a merger.
Former village trustee Deborah Wright, who is also running for the Rockingham Select Board, said the proposed three-year moratorium was not a “frivolous” suggestion and deserved serious consideration.
“This is ‘on the line,’” she said, quoting an opinion from the Vermont secretary of state’s office. “Err on the side of the voters, not your personal agenda.”
But MacPhee, one of the key authors of the merger proposal that was effectively rejected earlier this month by a majority of the Bellows Falls village trustees, said the nonbinding article was not proper. He conceded he fully expected the hot topic to come up under “other business” at the end of Rockingham’s town meeting March 3.
Merger of the governments of the village of Bellows Falls and the town of Rockingham has been considered for decades — and always rejected.
Bellows Falls residents view it as a loss of identity and local control, while others say the town should help pay for the Bellows Falls police and fire departments.
Rural Rockingham voters have generally opposed the merger because of the large increase in taxes, and the loss of autonomy of their local volunteer fire departments.
The trustees had refused to go along with appointing a committee to review the MacPhee merger proposal, which was also drawn up with the help of Rockingham School Board Chairman James “Jiggs” McAuliffe, former Bellows Falls village trustee Paul Obuchowski, and to a lesser extent, Bellows Falls Village President Roger Riccio and Saxtons River Village President Louise Luring.
The action by the Bellows Falls Village Trustees angered MacPhee, who said the vote deprived the entire village from voting on the merger issue, and he likened that vote with the Select Board vote Thursday.
MacPhee said that both the town attorney and the secretary of state’s office had recommended against putting the issue on the warning, which was finalized after the issue of the merger moratorium was settled.
MacPhee, quoting Town Attorney Stephen Ankuda, said the town meeting vote would “tie the hands” of a future Select Board, and thus shouldn’t be on the ballot.
Will Senning, elections director for the secretary of state’s office, had said the matter was “right on the line” of whether it was a proper town meeting matter, but urged the Rockingham board to follow the advice of its town attorney.
Agreeing with MacPhee were Selectwomen Ann DiBernardo and Susan Hammond.
Selectmen Peter Golec and Josh Hearne voted against keeping the matter off the ballot.
Golec said he had no problem with voters debating the issue, and Hearne had earlier gone on record against the merger proposal.