While gazing down at Four Corners from our dining room window during Thanksgiving dinner, one of my daughters asked what panhandling means. Apparently, she'd heard my wife and I talking about the new ordinances earlier. In the spirit of the holiday, we spent most of our meal discussing panhandling, poverty, and being thankful for what we have. While gorging on my second piece of pumpkin pie, I decided that I needed to show my daughters how important it is to protest peacefully against things you believe are wrong. So, I told them I was going to panhandle outside on the front step of our store the next day to show my disapproval of the new law. Later that night, my wife and I continued our discussion about how much a non-issue panhandling is in Bennington, and why decisions in Bennington continue to be made in a vacuum.
I see this issue as twofold:
A. There's the issue about poverty and whether or not people panhandle aggressively in Bennington, allegedly disrupting business and making some people feel uncomfortable.
B. Then there's another issue that involves the process which allowed this new series of laws to be approved.
I not only own a business on Main Street, (Fiddlehead at Four Corners) but also live on Main Street. I've been asked for money three times over the years, and never "aggressively." I feel that if isolated incidents occur, the police are capable of handling the situation without requiring further ordinances. Use of the term "aggressive" in this ordinance only creates an enormous grey area for misinterpretation. If I believed aggressive panhandling was occurring in Bennington, I'd be the first to complain and demand action ... but this isn't the case ... the select board has been led to believe something that isn't true; which leads me to...
This issue was brought forth by the Chamber and BBC, who claimed to have spoken to businesses on Main Street about panhandling. Nobody talked to me; I've asked many other business owners who were also never approached. I wonder who they did ask...?
My understanding is that there were complaints from only a couple business owners, who aggressively pushed the Chamber and BBC to spearhead this issue. Their televised statements like, "Aggressive panhandling is a problem every minute of every hour of every day" were far more damaging to our reputation than the minimal panhandling that actually occurs. This same thing happened a decade ago ... except the target wasn't the homeless, it was teenagers. The same erroneous arguments were used teens are scaring off customers, teens stand on the sidewalk and disrupt pedestrian flow, teens are threatening and aggressive, etc I'm speaking up now for the same reason I spoke up back then not because teens or panhandlers are without fault but because they've been unfairly accused.
In both cases, the issue revolved around the hearsay of a few, instead of first hand research. This is lazy government. Being on the select board shouldn't mean just showing up to meetings and voting...it means getting out in the community firsthand and understanding the issues by understanding people (not just your friends). The local booster club telling you how to vote is no better than what lobbyists do on a national level. I don't believe the select board had all the facts when they voted, and should revisit their vote based upon the discovery that their decision was based upon hyperbolic testimony.
But even more important than addressing the ongoing community debate on panhandling and poverty, is finding a way to address the disconnection between the select board and the community. No, I'm not running for select board but I do feel the select board is in dire need of a new modus operandi.
Don't be afraid to vote against the majority, just because you're new to the board if you've been on the board for a generation, maybe it's time for some new ideas; politics isn't a career. Whether the issue is teens, panhandlers, or whatever is next we need local leaders who know how to identify problems and find answers and not by solely listening to their friends, brothers, or squeaky wheels; the best answers are usually found elsewhere.
Joel Lentzner, owner of Fiddlehead at Four Corners, is a resident of Bennington.