New Vineyard residents turn down recall, code of conduct ordinances
NEW VINEYARD - Voters defeated two ordinances supported by citizen petition Thursday evening, in a special town meeting that's very existence was controversial.
More than 80 residents packed the first floor of Smith Hall, standing in the attached foyer and kitchen. A number of residents in town had drafted two ordinances for consideration: the first would have set in place a code of conduct for selectmen to follow while the second would have created a mechanism to recall municipal officers with a petition. Both ordinances were defeated by written ballot following roughly an hour of discussion.
Whether the special town meeting was legally organized appeared to be in dispute. Resident Jon Cavanaugh, who opened the meeting before moderator Gary Bestwick took over, said that residents had submitted petitions to the town office to hold a special town meeting on the ordinances. According to a statement read by Cavanaugh at the meeting, selectmen were required to respond to the request within 60 days. Instead, selectmen opted not to schedule a special meeting, instead choosing to defer the ordinances to the regular town meeting in March.
Citing a letter from the town's attorney, Frank Underkuffler, Cavanaugh said that the selectmen had decided that the issue was not an emergency and could wait for the regular town meeting. Saying the selectmen had, by not promptly responding to the petition and then refusing to hold a special town meeting, "illegally quashed" the meeting, Cavanaugh said their actions "only proves the need for a code of conduct."
The code of conduct includes 26 points, most of them requiring selectmen must be fair, ethical and professional. For example, the code of conduct requires selectmen "handle all matters of personnel on the basis of merit," "not withhold public documents from citizens of New Vineyard," and "not to benefit personally, politically or financially from his or her board activities."
In his opening statement, Cavanaugh said that selectmen had used their positions for personal gain and expended taxpayer money for "frivolous" reasons. Specifically, he said the board had expended money to attempt to remove the town's code enforcement officer. Cavanaugh also said that selectmen had utilized "slander" against residents of the town and lacked professionalism in some of their dealings with residents. He also accused selectmen of "embarrassing, assaulting and intimidating," citizens.
"The selectmen have always done what they want, when they want to, despite the will of the New Vineyard residents," Cavanaugh said at one point.
Selectman Doug Withey attended the meeting, as a resident and not selectman, as he put it. He also read from a statement, noting that the town's attorney had indicated it was "not unreasonable" to delay the ordinances until the regular town meeting and that therefore the event Thursday evening was a non-binding "assembly" rather than a special town meeting.
"No vote cast tonight will change any ordinances in the town of New Vineyard," Withey said.
He also noted that decisions reached by the board encompassed the will of all three selectmen. If residents chose to petition to remove one selectman, he said, selectmen believed all three should be voted out.
Cavanaugh said that he had originally planned to have Withey swear in moderator Bestwick, but that Withey informed him earlier that day that he would not in fact be able to do that. Withey, upon being asked to swear in Bestwick, said he "respectively" declined, based on the advice of the town's attorney. Bestwick recited the oath himself and opened debate on both articles.
Residents asked those supporting the ordinances for examples or proof of selectman wrongdoing. Alyce Cavanaugh said she had been confronted by a selectman at the town office when she tried to drop off the petition paperwork, and that the paperwork was thrown on the floor and later thrown at her.
The Cavanaughs have gone before the county commissioners three times to appeal decisions by the town regarding property valuations; the commissioners sided with the Cavanaughs each time.
The few residents who spoke at any length about the ordinances indicated that the special town meeting, or possibly assembly, was not the correct format for such a decision. Resident Doug Fletcher, who said he was not necessarily opposed to the code of conduct, said that it was not the correct time or place to approve such an ordinance.
"All I see here is anger," Fletcher said. He said that such ordinances needed to be considered carefully and by an unbiased group of residents, an opinion which earned a round of applause from the floor.
The vote on the code of conduct was 38 in favor and 48 opposed. Residents also chose to not enact a recall process, voting against the ordinance by a vote of 23 to 51.
Resident Robert Healy asked that residents avoid allowing the debate to divide them.
"The worst thing that could come out of this would be the town to be divided," Healy said.