If we can’t even talk, it doesn’t leave us much room.
ST. ALBANS — Before St. Albans Town and City can renew discussions about water and sewer services, trust between the two communities will have to be rebuilt. That’s the view of St. Albans City Mayor Liz Gamache.
On Wednesday, Judge Dennis Pearson ruled that a 2009 services agreement between the municipalities is not a valid contract. He determined that city and town lacked a shared understanding of the terms of the agreement when they signed it.
His decision leaves the town without access to new water and sewer hook-ups outside of the North End Sewer District (within the U.S. 7-North northern growth center).
In 2011 the city imposed a moratorium on the sale of water and sewer allocations — which give the owners the right to access water and sewer services — outside of the city limits. The moratorium exempted the sewer district, city officials said, because it was a pre-existing commitment.
Following the judge’s ruling, the Messenger reached out to the leaders of both communities, asking for their responses to the judge’s decision, his views of the relationship between the city and town, and where this leaves the town and city now.
St. Albans Town Selectboard chair Bernie Boudreau replied simply: “The town has no comment at this time.”
St. Albans City provides water and sewer treatment services to 1,300 customers in the town, including the town’s largest factories and retail establishments.
Asked whether the city would be willing to enter into fresh negotiations with the town over the sale of new allocations, Gamache said, “Nothing has changed yet. The reality is that until the leaders in both communities begin to earnestly and sincerely repair our relationship, it’s going to be difficult to negotiate an agreement of any sort – big or small.”
Trust must be rebuilt between the two communities, said Gamache, who added that won’t happen overnight.
“Right now if I said ‘one and one is two,’ we’d have to fact check that because there’s not enough trust to believe it,” she said.
St. Albans Town recently extended its contract with the city for police services, following a public vote in which town residents rejected a selectboard backed proposal to instead hire the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office.
“I strongly suggest that we use the extension of the policing contract as an opportunity to figure out how we can work better together,” said Gamache. “If we can become successful in this existing partnership, perhaps we can begin to figure out how to be successful together in other ways.
“I consider myself both an optimist and a realist,” she added. “I believe that city-town relations can and should improve, but it won’t happen overnight. It won’t be easy and it won’t happen if both sides aren’t committed to building a stronger relationship with a foundation of trust.”
In his ruling Pearson said the two sides in the lawsuit could resolve the issues that divide them “if all of the emotional and historical baggage was only checked at the door.”
“The judge is right,” Gamache said. “Anyone who is carrying baggage needs to check it at the door.
Following her election as mayor two years ago, Gamache said she and Boudreau had met periodically to informally discuss issues involving the two communities. When town selectboard members made several criticisms of the police service provided by the city last fall, Gamache said she reached out to Boudreau, requesting a meeting to discuss the town’s concerns.
Boudreau cancelled the meeting and has not responded to her efforts to meet since then, said Gamache.
“If we can’t even talk, it doesn’t leave us much room,” she said.
Pearson also wrote that the town and city – both officials and citizens – need to recognize that they are “functionally a single economic zone of interlocking and symbiotic interests.”
Gamache agreed with that assessment. “We need to start truly valuing the strengths each community brings to the table,” she added.
Neither community is perfect, she added, but both have assets that can be built upon.
“My door is still open,” said Gamache.
In an e-mail to Boudreau, the Messenger asked about the range of options open to the town in the wake of Pearson’s decision.
In addition to asking about the possibility of the town reopening negotiations with the city, the Messenger asked about the town’s legal options.
The town could appeal Pearson’s lawsuit, for example, or search for a way to challenge the moratorium in court.
Local developer Sam Smith, the chair of the town planning commission, has filed suit against the city, claiming that by selling allocations to landowners in the sewer district, but not other areas of the town, the city is discriminating against similarly situated landowners outside the sewer district.
The Smith suit also questioned whether the city and town had in fact entered into a legal agreement sufficient to justify an exemption from the hookup moratorium for the North End Sewer District .
The town could simply do nothing and wait for a decision in that suit.
Previously, the town had explored the possibility of building a wastewater treatment facility of its own to serve the area around the bay. The projected cost was $10.1 million with payments on a 20-year bond to pay for the facility estimated at $410,000 annually.
The town could also choose to resume discussion of that project.