Proposal to Combine Recreation Services for Essex Town and Essex Junction Fails at the Polls
The Village of Essex held a special election on December 13, 2016:
"Shall the Village of Essex Junction enter into an agreement for the formation of a union municipal district to be known as "Essex Community Parks & Recreation?"
Votes: 701 Yes 420 No
Votes: 1021 Yes 1758 No (both village and town residents voted in this election)
Rec district proposal fails
The proposal to combine recreation services between Essex’s two departments failed on Tuesday due in large part to town residents who decisively shot down the measure, preliminary results show.
Village voters passed the special ballot 701 to 420. Also considered Essex Town voters, village residents who cast ballots as town residents approved it, 688 to 412.
Town residents, who would have seen a tax increase under the recreation district, failed the proposal 333 to 1346, making the town’s combined vote 1,021 in favor and 1,758 against.
Formed in February to explore governance models, the Recreation Governance Study Committee chose to pursue the merger last June. From there, the committee met nearly 20 times, including for six public forums, while distributing three informational videos and a slew of FAQs on its website.
The committee’s formation came three months after Essex and Westford approved the creation of a unified school district. Once the district begins operation on July 1, 2017, the prudential committee, which oversees both the village school district and Essex Jct. Recreation and Parks, will cease to exist.
Citing this, village trustees passed a resolution in September to chart its path in case of a no vote. The agreement says they’ll work with the prudential committee to transfer EJRP to the village’s purview before exploring finance and governance models to maintain EJRP’s “present entrepreneurial approach.”
The arrangement would keep its budget separate from the village general fund, the resolution stated.
The proposal’s failure ends a polarizing campaign between supporters and critics, who disagreed over the district’s potential oversight and transparency.
Meetings grew contentious at times, the divide often visible, chairs sitting empty between members on both sides of the issue.
Resident RaMona Sheppard, who said this atmosphere is why she stopped attending meetings, wondered if the ill feelings after the national election trickled into the recreation issue.
In the same vein, many in Essex are facing a tough question after Tuesday’s vote: Where do they go from here?
Standing outside Essex High School on Tuesday, selectboard vice-chairwoman Irene Wrenner – seen as the face of the district’s opposition – believes a challenge lies ahead.
“People have gotten very personal in their attacks and have not stuck to the issues, and I think it’s unfortunate,” she said.
Wrenner said Essex residents need to “look for what we do have in common with each other … instead of letting one issue temporarily, or longer, divide us.”
Wrenner raised the first of many public critiques about the plan back in August. She also formed a political action committee, Plan B for Essex, which purchased signs urging a no vote. They were seen lining parts of Route 15 near Essex Middle School.
There, three members of the study committee — Kim Maiberger, Michael Smith and Betzi Bilodeau — stood outside, greeting voters as they passed.
Smith said there was little interaction beyond pleasantries, suggesting most people were informed as they entered the polls.
All three said the often-personal debate may have lingering effects.
“Memories, especially in a town like this, can last a long time,” Bilodeau said. “My guess is that this whole process will have some outcome on future votes, whether people on boards or …”
“People participating,” Smith said, an interjection the trio agreed on.
Tuesday marked the fourth and fifth time town and village residents have voted this year, respectively. With 16,750 registered voters, the 2,801 ballots cast represent a 17 percent turnout.
Though higher than April’s 5.35 percent turnout for school budget questions, the total paled in comparison to November’s general election turnout of 69 percent.