Published September 13. 2012 4:00AM
Sprague - Debate over issues such as job creation and state debt came to a sudden stop Wednesday in the race for the 19th District state Senate seat when Republican Senate candidate and current 47th District state House representative Chris Coutu veered off the campaign trail to focus on a stop-sign complaint.
A Canterbury resident was protesting a new, three-way stop sign at Main and Spruce streets in Hanover. The sign was ordered by Sprague first selectman, Democrat Cathy Osten, who is Coutu's 19th District opponent.
James Ennis of Canterbury, who also owns property in Sprague, went to the intersection and gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition to seek removal of the stop sign. He said the Board of Selectmen never approved the sign, and he accused Osten of sending state police to the scene to ask him to leave, saying he was harassing motorists.
Osten disputed some of his claims, saying nearby residents had called state police. She said she talked to police to find out about the situation, then went to tell Ennis that police were coming.
She said selectmen discussed the stop sign at their Jan. 11 meeting under the agenda item "first selectman's report." She said board members unanimously supported the new stop sign "by consent" rather than by a vote. She said the town used the same process to install several new stop signs recently.
The board discussed Ennis' complaint Aug. 8, and she told him she would put the item on a future selectmen's agenda - but not Wednesday's meeting, which already was busy with grant approvals and applications, and a detailed review of the proposed master plan for the Baltic Village Center and the town Strategic Plan.
Coutu issued a press release on the controversy Tuesday night and attended Wednesday's more than three-hour selectmen's meeting awaiting the pubic comment session at the end. He spent most of the meeting in the hallway outside the meeting room and left Town Hall for a time. He did not address the board.
"If these allegations are true, they represent a gross abuse of state resources and a frightening abuse of executive power," Coutu said in his Tuesday press release. "A town like Sprague cannot afford to have its limited number of first responders occupied with the First Selectwoman's personal political spats."
Osten shot back that during his four years representing Sprague in the 47th District, Coutu never attended any Board of Selectmen meetings, never assisted the town on major issues or with infrastructure funding needs and did not attend town events, except to campaign.
"I could not disagree with him more," Osten said. "His advocating for the removal of a stop sign is a public safety issue, and evidence of his continued efforts to mislead the public about his true intentions. I wish Chris would have come to a meeting before. This is obviously a campaign gimmick and an attempt by Chris to distract voters from the real issues in this election."
Osten said state statutes specifically give selectmen authority to place stop signs for public safety to keep it out of the political and public arena. There is no provision for a town meeting on the issue, as Ennis requested.
About 25 people attended the meeting, and some complained that the selectmen did not adjust the agenda to allow public comment first. They offered mixed opinions on the stop sign and some asking for better enforcement of speed limits rather than putting up new stop signs.
Selectman Dennison Allen proposed that the board ask the Board of Finance to fund a $15,000 to $25,000 study of whether the stop signs on Main Street in Hanover are necessary. The board approved the motion unanimously.
Ennis thanked the board for endorsing a study and said he never has harassed anyone. He presented a petition with more than 260 names, including 115 town residents, objecting to the stop signs, saying they were put up in a secretive and "underhanded" way.
Resident Deborah Baker said she would rather the selectmen just take the signs down without an expensive study.