Owning a business in a small town is an experience wrought with as many social hurdles as economic. I remember the week we bought our building in 1999, I was at my accountant's office taking care of some paperwork, when he asked what I thought about a particular organization in town. I told him that I felt the organization was well-meaning but inefficient, and their director was unprofessional, contentious, and should be replaced. We spoke for a few more minutes about that organization and then concluded our business. It wasn't until several months later that I realized the director we were talking about was his wife! It was my first lesson in just how small a small town can be. Of course, I wish he'd mentioned that his wife was the director before asking for my opinion... perhaps he assumed I knew.
As time went by, I started to learn the Bennington family tree. The former town community development director shares the same surname as a past chair of the Selectboard... but aren't related. The guy who took my college graduation photograph is related to a Selectboard member who's related to a fellow Main Street businessman. My daughter's first grade teacher (who is amazing) is the mother of their kindergarten teacher (who is awesome), who may or may not be related to my electrician (also excellent), who might be related to a member of the school board. Over the years I've learned these relationships are the fabric of which our town is made... they're the living history of our town. I've also learned that unless you were born here, there's no way to completely understand that social fabric. Hence my designation: Flatlander.
If you were born here, I can see how you might be saying to yourself, "why is this guy pointing the finger at Bennington's local families and forefathers?" I'm absolutely not... just by discussing an issue (or group of people) doesn't mean anyone is being criticized. What I'm trying to highlight for those who grew up locally, is that there are relationships and business connections within our community which are obvious to you, but not to everyone. In the spirit of community and democracy, I feel we need to address this lack of transparency when it affects our local government and commerce.
The Bennington Select Board last revised the town's Conflict of Interest Policy 20 years ago, in 1993. Interestingly, the original document was drafted in 1987, shortly after the town was embroiled in an infamous embezzlement and perjury scandal. The select board at the time proactively took action by creating this document with the intent of clarifying and preventing further conflicts of interest. The document as it stands, contains excellent guidance about how to proceed in the murky waters of familial and business connections. In practice however, I have seen little compliance with this document. Now may be a good time to revisit the document and provide for its dissemination and explanation.
Nobody likes to think of themselves as an insider... and maybe only those on the outside are able to see that forest for the trees. Ignorance might be bliss, but it is also ignorant... and to presume that people on the inside aren't taking advantage of the system is a fool's paradise. We need better transparency in Bennington for everyone's sake. It not only informs and protects the public of potential nefarious decisions by public officials, but also protects public officials from the public making wrongful assumptions about them. Lack of transparency also contributes to the bombastic polarity our town faces when issues arise.
Last Tuesday, I attended an event at the Firehouse run by the Vermont Secretary of State... not by somebody at his office, but the actual Secretary of State! The event was titled, "Got Transparency?" Not one Bennington Select Board member showed up; maybe they were watching on CAT-TV or perhaps some of them had already attended the event in a previous year, but their collective absence was apparent. If we are to pursue modifying and disseminating the town's Conflict of Interest Policy, I think the select board should consider inviting either the Secretary of State or Attorney General's office (who both seem to have auspices over this matter) to arrange a special seminar in Bennington to help better educate the public and public officials about our own policy. Jim Condos mentioned another town in the Northeast Kingdom who had requested a special information session after their initial presentation... 150 people showed up.
Sometimes conflict begets better understanding. I hope the select board takes this opportunity to address the root of so many of Bennington's problems.
Joel Lentzner, owner of Fiddlehead at Four Corners, is a resident of Bennington.