The Derry Town Council made short work of nine petitions submitted following its majority decision to cut the tax rate by $1.21 in May.
In a special meeting Monday night the Council fielded eight referendum petitions and one “free” petition. The referendum petitions were passed on to an outside attorney to check their viability and the “free” petition was passed on to Town Administrator Galen Stearns to investigate.
The eight referendum petitions were sponsored by a loose coalition of community members and groups who were upset at several of the budget cuts approved 4-3 at the May 19 Council meeting. Eight petitions were made available for community members June 7 and 10 at Upper Village Hall, and garnered more than 700 signatures. The petitions required 242 signatures to be accepted.
The referendum petitions ask the Council to vote to repeal the following:
• Reducing the staff of the Fire Department by four positions, saving $384,000.
• Reducing fire overtime, saving $339,012.
• Reducing four positions in the Police Department, saving $384,000.
• Reducing police overtime, saving $566,681.
• Reducing Department of Public Works (DPW) overtime, saving $63,500.
• Reducing two full-time DPW staff members, saving $150,000.
• Eliminating the Director of Human Resources position, saving $150,000.
• Closing one of the four fire stations.
The group researched their options and focused in on Section 3.3 of the Town Charter, which allows a “referendum petition.” A referendum petition can address a specific item in the budget. It needs 20 percent of the votes cast in the last election, in Derry’s case 242 votes, after which it goes to the Town Clerk and then to the Council. ‘The Council is required to take a vote to repeal its earlier decision, and if the Council fails to repeal that vote or takes no action, a special Town Election is warranted.
But the Council is being cautious about its response.
The Council asked Administrator Galen Stearns to provide a list of four outside firms that would review the validity of the petitions.
Chairman Tom Cardon said up to that point, the protocol for referendum petitions had been followed, including having Town Clerk Denise Neale verify the signatures. At this point, he said, the normal procedure would be to send the petitions on to the town’s own legal counsel. But, Cardon said, “I think it would behoove us to use an outside firm.”
Councilor David Fischer said, “This is a very important matter.”
Member Mark Osborne made a motion that the Council hire Devine Millimet and Branch of Manchester to review the validity of the petitions.
“Why Devine, Millimet and Branch?” Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores asked. “Galen gave us four names.”
Osborne noted that Devine Millimet and Branch has an excellent reputation and does a lot of work with municipalities. “They could handle this well,” he said. The firm did some work for the town several years ago, Osborne said, but is not one of Derry’s “go-to” firms for outside opinions.
“They are tangentially familiar with Derry, but not overly familiar,” he said.
Also, he said, Devine was first on the list provided by Stearns, and “historically, when you nominate people for boards, the first name on the list is the first person nominated.”
Katsakiores and member Al Dimmock both said they would support sending the petitions to Devine.
The other names provided by Stearns were Upton and Hatfield; Donahue, Tucker and Ciandella; and Soule, Leslie, Kidder, Sayward and Bloughman.
The Council voted unanimously to forward the eight referendum petitions to Devine, Millimet and Branch.
Osborne made a motion to appropriate up to $10,000 for Devine’s services, based on the Town Charter Section 8.8B, which permits the Council to appropriate money to seek out legal advice.
The Council voted unanimously to appropriate the money.
Councilor Joshua Bourdon asked what the time frame was and Stearns said it had to be within 30 days of the petitions’ delivery to the Town Clerk, which would put it at July 15 or 16.
Cardon directed Stearns to ask Devine to get back to the Council by July 7, the Council’s only meeting in July.
“Declaring a petition ‘sufficient’ goes well beyond the number of signatures,” Osborne said. “Obviously, we want this the sooner the better, but we also don’t want to put someone under the gun.”
The ninth petition was submitted by community member Mike Gill (see related story page xx) and requested that the Council direct Stearns to find out what assets were transferred when the Derry Arts Council took over administration of Derryfest, what assets are currently available, and whether restoring the funding would allow Derryfest to happen in 2015. Chairman Michael Gendron and his team cancelled the 2015 event after Parks and Recreation Director Eric Bodenrader informed them that, due to dealing with his own budget cuts, he could not provide town support for the event.
The fourth component of Gill’s petition asks the Council to withdraw money from the MacGregor Fund to pay for the town employees’ time, should there not be enough in the Derryfest account.
The Council voted unanimously to authorize Stearns to investigate the organization’s assets and the possibility of drawing from the MacGregor Fund.
Community members had varied reactions to the meeting, which convened at 6 p.m. and was over by 6:30.
“The process seems to be slow, but deliberate,” Chris Howe said. “The worst-case scenario is that the public gets to vote – on how our money is spent. But I’m sure they want to avoid that ‘catastrophe,’” Howe added with a smile.
“I’m disappointed they didn’t discuss it, but I’m not surprised,” Howe said.
“It was quick,” community member Audrey Martens said. “I don’t understand why they don’t just save the $10,000 and let the people vote.” The vote, if any, will be held well after the new budget goes into effect July 1, which won’t allow any of the departments to recoup, she pointed out.
“I’m disappointed,” Mary Eisner said. “I don’t think we got a thorough explanation.” The Town Clerk validated the signatures, Eisner said, and that should have been enough.
And if Councilors only approve some of the referendum petitions, the rest will still go to a special election, she said.
But other residents supported the Council. Joseph DiChiaro, a 20-year resident, said, “It’s the only thing they could have done tonight. Realistically, they had to deal with the petition. People complain about the taxes, but they don’t want to do anything about them.”
“I think the petitioners were short-sighted,” Bill Ventura said. “People are going to lose their homes because of the high taxes, and young families are being driven out.”