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State, Local Officials Throw Each Other Under the Parade Float



Friday, July 10, 2015
Newbury, Vt. — Confusion and hurt feelings continue to surround a last-minute rerouting that left spectators lined along an empty street, waiting for a parade that would never come.

Some in the area expressed anger, while others saw a symbolic irony in the fact that a patriotic tradition joining the twin communities together on the nation’s 240th Independence Day had been botched by confusion over regulatory requirements.

Everyone agrees that shortly before the annual Woodsville-Wells River Fourth of July parade was scheduled to cross the Connecticut River from New Hampshire into Vermont on Route 302, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department told organizers that the parade wouldn’t be allowed to cross the state line.

Everyone also agrees that the sheriff’s department made the call because there were no detour signs to safely direct traffic away from the parade’s planned course, which extended along Route 302 and down the chunk of Route 5 that serves double duty as Main Street in the Newbury village of Wells River.

But when it comes to why the signs weren’t in place, and why, on the very same day, another interstate parade — also lacking detour signs — proceeded unchecked across the border of Orford and into Fairlee no one seems to agree on much of anything.

News of the debacle quickly spread through social media channels, bolstered by media coverage from various outlets including the Associated Press. National conservative political pundit Mark Steyn, who works in Haverhill (which includes the Woodsville community), wrote a scathing appraisal of the situation on his website, linking the flub to a broader decline in the ability of Americans to think independently and solve problems.

Amid the hubbub, parade organizers and officials from the Vermont Agency of Transportation offered accounts this week that directly contradict each other.

Colleen Strout, secretary of the parade organizing committee, says she first approached the transportation agency for help in January, after Newbury Constable Glen Godfrey told her that, in previous years, detour signs he had erected had been stolen.

Godfrey said that in previous years he’s put up homemade detour signs with the parade times written on them, but that they often disappeared in the few hours between the time he put them up and the time the parade began.

Strout said that she tried to solve the problem by asking the transportation agency’s district administrator, Dale Perron, to bring down an electronic sign that could display text messages to divert traffic away from the event.

According to Strout, Perron told her that the detour signs had been confiscated, not stolen, by the transportation agency in previous years, because the agency is the only entity allowed to erect detour signs.

Strout said Perron agreed to handle the detour signage. Strout also said Perron mailed her a Vermont parade permit application, and that the two had another conversation about it before she returned it.

The permit, which was issued in March, is signed by Strout, Perron and Orange County Sheriff Bill Bohnyak.

“There is not a single person on the committee who is not heartbroken that we couldn’t finish what we started,” Strout said. “It’s definitely a broken tradition, and that’s a shame.”

But Perron’s account is dramatically different.

He said he doesn’t remember having any conversation with Strout at all in January or March. He said he would never have agreed to take responsibility for the parade’s signs, because the transportation agency doesn’t have anything to do with signage for local events like parades or running events.

“Otherwise, we would be out on holidays and Sundays, everyone on overtime,” he said.

Perron also said that the agency had not removed Newbury’s parade detour signs in previous years, and so he would not have said otherwise to Strout.

“We would never take the signs down …,” he said. “If they get stolen every year, it’s not from us taking them down.”

Perron said the permit clearly states that the signs are the responsibility of the applicant, which in this case would be the organizing committee.

According to the permit, “the sponsor agrees in writing to comply with any and all attached participant and traffic safety requirements. A typical layout with required signs is attached.”

Strout said there were no attachments to the permit and that, based on her verbal conversations with Perron, her understanding was that the state was handling the signage.

The permit also says that when a state highway is closed for more than 30 minutes — as was the case here — the municipality is required to provide a detour plan, but Strout said she never submitted a detour plan. Aside from the question of why the detour signs were in place, questions were also raised about whether preventing the parade from entering Vermont was really necessary, given that local police and Orange County sheriffs were on hand to direct traffic.

On the morning of the parade, Constable Godfrey first raised the issue with the sheriff’s department, according to Lt. Kyle Kapitanski.

The lieutenant on duty at the parade then placed a call to Sheriff Bohnyak, who made the decision to prevent the parade’s entry into Vermont, Kapitanski said.

But even as the Woodsville-Wells River parade was being disrupted, other Vermont parades — including in Fairlee and Corinth — were continuing without any detour signage, and under the watch of Orange County law officers.

Nancy Frost, who helped organize Corinth’s parade, said the sheriff’s department has always assumed responsibility for traffic control there, and that she knew of no sign requirements.

The Orford-Fairlee parade also had no detour signs, according to Fairlee Police Chief Jason Bachus.

Bachus said deputies from the sheriff’s department directed Fairlee traffic away from the parade’s Route 5 path at four locations, including one from Interstate 91.

“There are no signs,” he said. “We have a deputy standing right there.”

Recently hired Fairlee Town Administrator Brian Hanson said that because Fairlee’s parade permit didn’t have any attachments with specific direction about signage, he didn’t worry about it. But he also said he wouldn’t expect the state to erect signs on behalf of the event.

“I’ve been in this line of work for at least 40 years and I’ve never had the state put signs up for me,” he said. “Unless it was for something in conjunction with the state.”

Kapitanski said he wasn’t sure what happened in Fairlee, but that the Wells River parade was halted based on an assessment of the local risk levels. Bohnyak and the lieutenant who oversaw the Fairlee parade were both out of the office and unavailable for comment.

Steve Strout, president of the organizing committee and Colleen Strout’s husband, said that he would have put up signs locally if he thought it was allowed. He said the fire chief made a last-minute effort to put signs up, but was prevented from doing so by the sheriff’s department. Both Strouts said the sheriff’s department should have allowed the parade to go on as scheduled.

The Haverhill Police Department, he said, executed good judgment by allowing the parade to be rerouted through Woodsville, even though the New Hampshire state permit did not allow for the new route, and the new route had no detour signage.

Godfrey said that if he had it to do all over again, he would still have pointed out the lack of signage to the sheriff.

“I’m looking for safety,” he said. The signs also protect the town — and himself — from potential lawsuits in the event of an accident, he said.

Perron said the transportation agency has very limited ability to directly enforce signage requirements, and said it’s possible different law enforcement officers could draw different, though equally valid, conclusions about the need for signage at different events.

Hanson predicted that the problem would have long-term effects throughout Vermont.

“That’s going to change the way parades are done in the state all over,” he said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.