OFFICE OF THE SELECTBOARD
Town of Halifax, Vermont
SELECTBOARD REGULAR MEETING MINUTES
October 6, 2020
Call to Order
The meeting was called to order at 7:00 p.m. Selectboard members Lewis Sumner, Mitchell Green, and Bradley Rafus, Moderator Paul Blais, and Robbin Gabriel were in the Town Office conference room. Peggy Rafus, Earl Holtz, Patricia Holtz, Linda Lyon, Everett Wilson, Patty Dow, Chum Sumner, David Jones, Chris Parkins, Janice Bliss, Douglas Parkhurst, Marilou Parkhurst, Marketa Psenickova, Jeff DeForest, Tina Blais, Tristan Roberts, Bob Teree, Jessica Cooney, Rhonda Ashcraft, Mike Fournier, Edee Edwards, Patrick Eck, and Stephan Chait, participated through remote teleconference access. No names are available for several calls on the roster.
Changes and/or Additions to Agenda
Brad Rafus requested discussion of the Branch Road bridge at the Hubbard Hill intersection. Lewis Sumner added KAS fall monitoring well testing, and the Local Hazard Mitigation Plan.
Moderator Paul Blais reviewed call control features and Roberts Rules, and gave instructions for participating, and meeting protocol and standards.
Approval of Previous Meeting Minutes
Mitch Green made a motion to approve the 9/1/20 regular meeting minutes, after changing “FY21 deficit” to “FY20 deficit” in the motion made under Deficit Discussion. Sumner seconded the motion, which passed, 3-0.
Green made a motion to approve the 9/24/20 emergency meeting minutes as written. Sumner seconded the motion, which passed, 2-0-1, with Rafus abstaining.
Patty Dow—Road Closing
Patty Dow announced that the Halifax Celebration Committee is sponsoring a free concert on Saturday, October 10th. The event will be held from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. on the lawn at the Susan Longe residence (50 Branch Road), and Dow requested that the section of Branch Road from the four-way intersection at the Community Hall to the intersection of Jacksonville Stage Road (Town Hill) and Branch be closed for the afternoon of the 10th. Dow asked that, for purposes of guest safety and social distancing, the road be completely barricaded between the Community Hall and the Historical Society, with a “road closed” sign posted at the Jacksonville Stage intersection which would allow access to parking in the upper school parking lot and near the church. She suggested the closure begin about 12:30 p.m. and extend until 5:00 p.m. After some discussion of the timeframe, Green made a motion to close Branch Road on October 10th from the Community Hall to Town Hill, from 12 noon until 5:00 p.m. Sumner seconded the motion, which passed, 3-0. Prior to the vote, Rafus said he would be away that day, but would leave the necessary signs, cones and a traffic plan showing correct placement. Recalling some traffic problems during the last concert, Paul Blais suggested pulling his truck and trailer across the road near the Firehouse, to prevent vehicles from attempting to drive through the area. Rafus said he would provide barricades for that purpose.
Cemetery Commissioner Jeff DeForest spoke about the condition of the Town’s cemeteries, and hopes to generate some interest and assistance in maintaining them. There are broken headstones, veterans’ headstones laying on the ground, we’re running out of room in some cemeteries, in others there is room but we need help clearing and removing trees for new plots. DeForest said he has asked Otis Elevators for assistance with improving Center Cemetery, as their founder is buried there. Readsboro and Whitingham provide more funding for cemeteries than Halifax does, and in recent years they have budgeted additional monies for headstone restoration. I’m not asking for a lot of money, said DeForest, but maybe a little more in the budget, and perhaps the Town could help with some fill for cemeteries that are hard to mow due to rough spots. He recommended focusing on improving one cemetery at a time, and asked for volunteers to assist with maintenance and some help in locating possible sources of grant funding. Green asked Road Commissioner Brad Rafus about the feasibility of using highway department equipment for tree removal. We could improve the cemetery roads, said Rafus, but our rubber-tired excavator isn’t designed to work off-road. The cemetery budget has been $5,000 for a long time. I think that overall budget needs to go up a little, and if we could get estimates for upgrading one cemetery at a time, we could discuss in the upcoming budget meetings. Green mentioned the cemetery on Pennel Hill which has not been maintained for years and needs dead tree removal. Sumner told DeForest to get some estimates together for Board consideration during the budgeting process; focus on one cemetery a year, he said. Rafus said the highway department could deliver fill to cemeteries where needed, but a smaller machine would be required to work within the cemetery itself. He will also contact the State for advice on sources of grant funding. Earl Holtz thanked DeForest for the work he did at Bascom Cemetery, which had gone many years without maintenance. The crew did a great job, said Holtz.
Illegal Meeting Complaint
Lewis Sumner announced he would like to make a motion to rescind the emergency Selectboard meeting held on September 24th. That meeting was held for the sole purpose of signing a warning allowing candidates for the reconstituted Halifax School Board to be on an Australian ballot in the November 3rd general election. When we held that meeting, said Sumner, we had legal advice that said that’s what we should be doing, but when you have five lawyers you have five different ideas. Following the meeting, we received different advice. Basically, added Green, we did what the State recommended. Sumner made a motion to rescind the October 24, 2020, Selectboard emergency meeting vote to sign the warning for School Board candidates. Green seconded the motion, which passed, 2-0-1, with Rafus abstaining, as he was unable to attend that meeting. In discussion before the vote, Southern Valley Unified Union School District (SVUUSD) Board Chairman Chum Sumner addressed the situation, thanking the Selectboard for making the motion to rescind the vote. On September 16th, during a meeting with the Agency of Education (AOE) and Secretary of Education, Halifax was allowed to withdraw from the Southern Valley Unified Union School District, Sumner said. On the 19th, I got a letter from Chairman of the AOE John Carroll, stating that the Halifax School District and the Readsboro School District had been reinstated, and we would have to have a School Board for each town to handle business that would come up before the dissolution took effect on July 1, 2021. Thursday, September 24th, was my first opportunity to speak to our attorney, and that morning I spent two hours on the phone with the business manager and the Superintendent from the SVUUSD, and was advised that if a meeting was held immediately to post a warning, the election of School Board members could be held at the same time as the general election, thus saving money and saving people from coming out to vote in a separate election during COVID. That vote would reinstate the existing School Board members for the time left until the yearly Town Meeting vote in March 2021. Four days later, Sumner continued, I had another conversation with our attorney, and while he advised the plan was probably correct legally, I said I would rather opt for transparency, so we decided to ask the Selectboard to set aside their vote. Since then, I’ve had further discussion with the attorney about who can actually warn an election. It’s virgin territory; there is nothing in statute about reinstating school districts after they’ve dissolved a union district. Ken Fisher (Halifax Town Attorney Bob Fisher), also conferred with SVUUSD attorney Paul Giuliani, and was of the opinion that the Secretary of State might be the correct authority to warn the election, but that, too, is uncertain. The attorneys have written a letter to Secretary of State Jim Condos, asking him if that is his jurisdiction, or, if not, who has the authority to warn this meeting for a vote. That’s where we are at this point; it’s kind of a mess. Sumner pointed out that the legislation establishing Act 46 did not make provision for the steps that must follow a dissolution, and apologized to the Selectboard for putting them in a position of taking an action that made people unhappy. I don’t believe anyone meant to do anything that wasn’t totally transparent, Sumner added; it just seemed that was the simplest way to go. Green said the meeting was not illegal, as the Selectboard can hold an emergency meeting, but the Board was invalidating the vote to sign the warning.
Tristan Roberts—Broadband Update
Tristan Roberts, who is on the Halifax Broadband Committee, told the meeting that the Deerfield Valley Communications Union District, which now includes most Windham County towns, has been renamed DVFiber. Their new website is dvfiber.org. DVFiber has received grant monies to help with administrative costs, and now has a business plan, which is posted on the Windham Regional Commission website. The awarded grant monies will also allow the organization to undertake a pole study to assess the condition of all poles in Halifax. This study is a required first step in the proposed project to extend fiber to every dwelling in town. Roberts said pole studies have already been done in Readsboro and Whitingham, which made it practical to use grant funding to do a study in the neighboring town of Halifax. A team will be in the field in Halifax from October 19th through November 30th and will examine every utility pole in town. Workers will be wearing reflective vests, will park roadside, and will be walking easements, including cross-property easements as necessary to assess the poles. Roberts wants the public to be aware that this is a sanctioned activity, and public notices to that effect will be posted. Rafus said he knows it is Green Mountain Power’s policy to place all new poles roadside or where they are accessible by truck. If off-road poles need replacement, will they have to be brought out to the road?, he asked. Roberts didn’t have an immediate answer; he expects that type of question will be addressed during the next phase of the project, developing an engineering plan. David Jones, of DVFiber, said that while there are plans to move some poles to the roadside over the next three years, he believes none of them are in Halifax. Roberts had high praise for Jones, who is clerk of the Halifax Broadband Committee as well as a DVFiber representative. He (Jones) has been a tremendous resource, said Roberts; I believe he is working a full-time job between the two, and is doing a huge service to the town. Are the folks doing the pole study Green Mountain Power employees?, asked Paul Blais. No, replied Roberts, there is a contract with Matrix, a company that installs fiber, to do that study. Edee Edwards had two questions. What kind of electronic channels will be used to notify people about the pole study? I am a member of Front Porch Forum, but am not a Facebook person, said Edwards. I hope all appropriate channels are given notice. Edwards also asked whether any portion of the lines would be considered for underground, rather than on poles. She cited events like Tropical Storm Irene as a good reason to consider that method. Roberts said the organization would be mindful of people’s varying use of news sources when posting notices. He thought that fiber installation would be in alignment with utility company practices, and was doubtful that the budget would extend to the more expensive process of burying cable.
Bob Teree—Website Update
Bob Teree asked why a new town website was formed. I have loaned (the domain name) halifaxvermont to the town for years, he said, and it was disconcerting to see it suddenly disappear and go to a new domain. He also wanted to know if the town was hiring someone to help with the website and get it working. Gabriel, who updates the website, explained that when the current site was set up in approximately 2013, Bob Teree had assisted in the process, and had acquired the halifaxvermont domain name in his own name, rather than the town’s. Through the years the Town has wanted to own the name, for purposes of control and access, but that hasn’t happened. Therefore a decision was made to move the website to a new domain name, which the town owns. The website is currently located at halifaxvt.com and is functioning. A developer is engaged in updating the theme of the site, as that theme (the Vermont Digital Economy Project theme) was created and installed six or seven years ago as a grant-funded project. It has never been updated and is out of sync with present-day Internet technology. The new theme should be completed and go live in about four to six weeks; meanwhile, all minutes, agendas, reports, etc., are available on the existing site, but may be difficult to find. (Transcriber’s note: If you cannot locate materials on the website, please email email@example.com for assistance.) Teree responded that he understood why the town would want to control it’s own domain, but the reason why the website is experiencing issues has nothing to do with the domain. He said he had always been accommodating in helping the town with the site, and offered to assist now, as it was quite an easy fix if the town used a standardized theme. Paul Blais asked Teree if he would be willing to sell the halifaxvermont domain name to the town. I haven’t really thought about selling it, replied Teree, but I’m willing to help fix the website. Blais asked if Teree would be willing to put up a redirect under his halifaxvermont domain name, directing people to the new site. I can do that for awhile at the top-level domain, answered Teree. Edee Edwards said she was involved in the grant process that established the original website. She suggested it would be useful to obtain a .gov domain, as ours is a government website; that would clear up any confusion about who owns something, where information is coming from, and the validity of the information. Edwards said she appreciated the work involved in keeping the website updated.
Bob Teree—Health Benefits
Bob Teree asked which positions in the town, other than road crew or teachers, are eligible for health benefits. Blais said the only employees the town has are the road crew, and no one else gets health benefits.
Branch Road Bridge
Rafus has heard from Pete LaFogg, who is scheduled to do the repairs on the Branch Road bridge. LaFogg will not be able to begin the project until spring, as his schedule is too heavy; he told Rafus if it needs to be completed before winter the town should find someone else to do the work. The Board discussed, and agreed that spring would be fine. This late in the season locating a new contractor would be difficult; and the jersey barriers now in place will not cause problems during winter plowing.
Edee Edwards had a question about the previous health benefits topic. At one point was the Town Clerk eligible for health benefits?, she asked. Sumner said the Town Clerk was eligible in the past, but the Town has not paid health benefits for the Clerk for the last ten years.
Fall Landfill Testing
Sumner advised that KAS Environmental would be doing the fall landfill monitoring well testing the last week in October (between the 26th and 28th), and has asked if the town wishes to do private well testing. The Rafus private well was tested in the spring (2020), and Rafus said to wait until next spring, keeping it on a once-a-year schedule. KAS will only test monitoring well MW-3 this fall; the State requires that well be tested twice a year.
Local Hazard Mitigation Plan
Blais told the meeting the town has been notified of an upcoming grant opportunity which will help cover the expense of updating the Local Hazard Mitigation Plan. Updates are required every five years, and the Halifax plan is due in 2021. The full grant amount is $10,150, and the town’s match portion is $2,500. The application is due on December 4th, with awards to be made six months thereafter, followed by a one-year period in which to renew the plan, so for budgeting purposes the expenditure will fall in fiscal year 2022. Blais, as EMD, asked Selectboard approval for submission of the grant request. Rafus said a portion of the town’s $2,500 share could be in-kind—time and travel costs for the project, for instance. Green made a motion to have the EMD apply for the Local Hazard Mitigation Plan update grant. Rafus seconded the motion, which passed, 3-0.
Hearing of Visitors
Patrick Eck asked if Halifax had any volunteer core. Both the website and the graveyards seem like things people might be willing to pitch in for, he said. Anyone who wants to volunteer can talk to the Town Clerk, replied Sumner. Eck suggested it needed to be marketed; create a structure and then get people in. Blais outlined a process whereby people willing to volunteer would be placed on a list which noted their particular skill sets, and they would be called when volunteer workers were needed for a project that could benefit by their abilities.
Bob Teree asked Blais to send him the IP address for the current time website so he could forward traffic from his domain name to the halifaxvt.com site.
Blais, speaking as a visitor, said there has been some confusion about the role of a Moderator. He read an excerpt from the A Handbook for Vermont Moderators, published by the Secretary of State’s office: “The niceties of Robert’s Rules of Order and the laws of Vermont notwithstanding, meetings are driven by the dynamics of personality and community fervor. The ultimate judge of what should be done is the people, through their power to support or overrule the moderator, and no authority will stand in their way. Only the moderator has the power to channel the passions and ideas of the people toward a procedural resolution of their problems and needs.
Vermont law on the role of a moderator is very sparse. The law says a moderator shall be elected at the annual meeting for a term of one year [17 V.S.A. § 2646(1)] unless a municipality has voted to elect officers by the Australian ballot system [17 V.S.A. § 2680 (b).] The moderator elected at last year’s annual meeting will preside at this year’s annual meeting, until a new moderator is elected. That new moderator will take office after being elected, and will preside at the remainder of this year’s meeting and at special meetings throughout the year until the beginning of next year’s annual meeting. There is no requirement that moderators be sworn before taking office. 24 V.S.A. § 831. If the moderator is absent, a selectboard member must preside until a moderator pro tempore is chosen. 17 V.S.A. § 2657.”
I’d like people to understand, Blais continued, that during Town Meeting the role of moderator is to guide the Town Meeting. The moderator has no authority and voters can overrule the moderator. In this arena (Selectboard meeting) it’s a little different. The Selectboard has the authority to overrule the moderator because it’s the Selectboard that asked me to be the moderator. Recently there have been unfounded claims of officials being crooked. As a resident who is elected to several positions in Halifax (Moderator for the Town and School District, Representative to the SVUUSD, Trustee of Public Funds), I have spent no less than 100 hours working for the town in these different capacities. As someone who does work so hard for this town, and the school children in our town, it’s really disappointing to hear about slanderous accusations being made by ill-informed or under-informed people. Personally, I will continue to work hard for the people of this town, and anyone who would like to understand any of the elected positions that I hold, or the appointed ones, I’d be more than happy to discuss and educate you on any of my roles, or to discuss any of the decisions that I’ve made, when I’ve been in any of these elected roles.
Tristan Roberts commented that he hadn’t heard anything negative, but wanted to express his appreciation for the job Blais has done bringing discipline and order to Selectboard meetings during this COVID period.
Stephan Chait seconded Roberts’ comment, and complimented Blais on his role as moderator and the civility that he brings to the meetings. It’s extremely well done, and extremely important, thank you, Chait concluded.
Selectboard’s Order to the Treasurer for Payment
The orders to the Treasurer were reviewed and signed.
Executive Session (if needed)
Sumner made a motion to adjourn at 8:10 p.m. Green seconded the motion, which passed, 3-0.