Judge Plans Hearing On Hartford Track Suit

  • F.X. Flinn in Hartford, Vt., on March, 4, 2014. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, February 01, 2018

Woodstock — After hearing arguments on Wednesday, a Windsor Superior Court judge has set a new hearing date for today to consider whether he should order town and school officials to put an athletic track initiative on the ballot for Town Meeting voters.

During a status conference hearing on Wednesday afternoon in the courthouse, Judge Robert Gerety declined to move forward with an expedited trial requested by F.X. Flinn, one of more than 600 signatories on a petition that would have forced officials to ask voters whether they should spend $50,000 on preliminary work to install a track at Hartford High School.

He also declined to grant a motion filed by Joseph Farnham who, as legal counsel for the town and school district, had asked Gerety to dismiss Flinn’s arguments out of hand.

The reason he gave in both instances was the same: in the mad scramble to resolve the issue before Friday’s deadline to send an official Town Meeting warning to printers, there simply was not enough time.

“I’m not going to order a full-blown final hearing,” Gerety told Flinn, a Quechee resident and former selectman who described himself as a “political adviser” to the nonprofit Friends of Hartford Track, and who was representing himself in the proceedings. “The timing is too short.”

Soon after, he explained that Farnham’s motion to dismiss, filed just hours before the Wednesday afternoon hearing, could not be given full consideration.

“You have to have a certain amount of time to respond to the motion to dismiss,” Gerety said.

Instead, the judge set the stage for a lightning-fast adjudication of a type of legal motion that can be ruled on quickly — a preliminary injunction.

At Gerety’s suggestion, Flinn drafted the preliminary injunction motion later Wednesday afternoon. Gerety set a hearing for 1 p.m. today to consider that new motion, according to Flinn.

The School Board has declined to explain the legal reasoning behind its decision to keep the initiative off the ballot, which was made last week after an hourlong closed-door session.

But during the proceedings, Farnham explained the School Board’s objection to a chunk of petition language that asked voters to support the creation of a committee that would be tasked with “managing” the $50,000 appropriation for design and engineering work at the track’s proposed site on the Hartford High School campus.

Such a clause, Farnham said, would contradict state statute and illegally force the School Board to “relinquish authority of managing funds in the best interests of the district.”

Flinn, who helped draft the petition, had a different take on the interpretation of what it would mean for the committee to “manage” the $50,000.

“The town has a history of just such a committee with the Town Hall renovation project,” Flinn said. He said “it would be up to the School Board to make their best efforts to implement it legally,” and suggested the School Board would retain its power to sign off on decisions and enter into contracts based on input from the committee.

Though Gerety was not combative, he posed tough questions that left both Farnham and Flinn searching for adequate answers.

At one point he asked Farnham whether putting the petition before voters would cause the School Board “irreparable harm,” given that the School Board could evaluate the legal soundness of the petitioned questions at some later date.

“Can you articulate any irreparable harm?” Gerety asked Farnham.

“Not without giving it a little further reflection,” Farnham answered, after a lengthy pause.

Gerety also asked Flinn to defend an interpretation of the town charter related to whether the town clerk had flexibility in putting such questions on the ballot.

“Can you point to any case law that supports that interpretation?” he asked.

Flinn said he could not, because “the charter has never been subject to any judicial review.”

Selectboard Chairman Dick Grassi, Selectman Mike Morris, Hartford Town Manager Leo Pullar and Hartford School District Superintendent Tom DeBalsi were in the courtroom, but did not speak publicly. Farnham occasionally conferred with Pullar and DeBalsi before replying to the judge.

Outside of the courtroom, Sheila Hastie, president of Friends of Hartford Track, released a public statement accusing the School Board of intentionally tanking the petition by denying requests to have the school district’s legal counsel do a preliminary review of the petition language.

Meanwhile, the School Board issued a public statement of its own in which it sought to refute arguments that it should have acted to put some alternate version of the petitioned questions on the ballot.

“That also isn’t an option,” the board said. “Despite what many may think, the School Board does not come to decisions in an arbitrary way. Rather, the School Board follows a process, acting only after providing notice to the town that it is going to discuss a particular issue, soliciting feedback, engaging in discussion, and then voting. None of that process has taken place.”

The School Board also clarified that its position on the petition was not a decision about the merits of building a track at the high school.

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