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Residents came to the Board of Selectmen (BOS) special meeting on April 10 regarding placing a potential Academy advisory referendum question on the May budget ballot expecting a heated debate and a few fireworks. Over the course of the 15-minute meeting, there were fireworks, but not the kind anyone was expecting.
First Selectman Tom Banisch along with other Republican members of the BOS had been advocating for two referenda on Academy—one non-bonding question on the May budget ballot and then another bonding question down the road. Democratic BOS members strongly opposed having a May question, as did all members of the Board of Finance (BOF).
Facing pressure from fellow board members and members of his own party, Banisch opened the special meeting by reading a statement, which said that he was willing to drop the plan to put an Academy question on the May ballot.
“…It’s important that we as a board work together to keep the process moving forward and that our board is united in our vision for the future of the Academy School,” he said. “The one thing I do not want to do is confuse the issue and the voters with a vote at this time that doesn’t take into account the other capital needs of our town. For those reasons, and to ensure the voters that we are of a united vision, I would consider agreeing to holding off the referendum in May if we agree on the following:
“That we do not eliminate from future consideration the idea of two referenda on a single topic, that the Board of Selectmen will immediately begin work to answer questions left unanswered by the Academy Community Center Design Committee. These questions include potential grants that may be available and total operational costs on an annual basis, which can be determined by a staffing profile study for Community Center operations, and we agree to move a comprehensive capital plan to referendum after Jan. 1, 2020.”
The statement clearly shocked the audience and, as one resident said, “took the wind out of the sails” of the numerous residents who attended armed with prepared statements in opposition to a May question. Selectman Al Goldberg (D) thanked Banisch for his decision.
“Tom I would like to commend you for finding a way forward that keeps us all pulling together,” he said. “I think that is very statesmanlike on your part.”
Selectmen then did not vote on the two items originally listed on the special agenda: calling a May question and approving language for a May question. Selectmen had gone back and forth for months over a potential May question. In the first part of his statement, Banisch said he felt that a May question gave everyone a choice to voice their opinion.
“My intention in suggesting and advocating for this advisory referendum question is to allow for an official vote to keep the process moving forward,” he said. “No matter what the outcome, the process will be able to continue with what I feel is a clearer path towards a resolution and future use of the building that satisfies the majority of the town.”
The question would have been something along the lines of if the voters wanted to continue to pursue a community center model in Academy School at a rough construction cost of $14 million. Banisch said if approved, then the town would have then formed a building committee and gotten firmer cost estimates. If the question was voted down, then Banisch said the town would have looked at other possible uses or variations on a community center concept.
However, opponents to a May question had said that rushing to put Academy on the May budget ballot—a referendum that historically has a very low voter turnout—without a bonding ask looked like an easy way to sink the project. Members of the BOF also strongly opposed this option as the board has made clear in recent months that with the massive number of capital projects on the horizon, no one project should be allowed to get out ahead of another.
Check back for updates.
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