It’s both bemusing and disturbing to observe how the Bennington Select Board and town officials conduct local government business. One moment, they’re sticklers for strict adherence to rules of proper conduct and procedure. The next, they trample over same with abandon. A case in point is the Select Board’s recent approval to submit a grant application on behalf of Shire’s proposed low-income rental housing project off Silver Street.
On two separate occasions, the board voted to approve the application under the appearance of conducting "open" public hearings. The first vote was taken on March 24 following a brief verbal presentation by the Executive Director of Shires. Despite the objections of two board members who voiced strong concern about lack of advance notice and insufficient information, the Board voted to approve 5 to 2 in favor rather than defer action until needed information was made available for full deliberation. It appears an April 9 deadline for submission of the grant provided a convenient excuse to shortcut due process considerations.
That probably would have ended any further "official" consideration of the board’s questionable action since the grant application was submitted by the April 9 filing deadline. However, due to deficiencies in the original March 24 public hearing notice, a second public hearing was required and held on May 12.
A subsequent request was made by concerned citizens to place the issue on the board’s June 23 meeting agenda. The purpose was to provide an opportunity for open and meaningful deliberation of opposing views. This was especially important in that requested information about the project wasn’t provided by Shires until June 5. Surprisingly, that request was summarily rejected by the board chair and the town manager. Nevertheless, upwards of 40 citizens opposing the project appeared at the June 23 meeting. During the open "Citizens" segment of the meeting, statements were made by various town residents expressing disappointment about the lack of an open and orderly decision-making process. Also, options to allow for board reconsideration were identified which potentially included withdrawing the application or refusing to accept the grant if awarded. In response, the board chair and town manager stated they would need to consult with their lawyer to ensure they were "working within the rules." Apparently, the fact that votes previously had been taken without benefit of an open and deliberative decision-making process wasn’t against the rules. Amazingly, they attempted to excuse themselves on the rationale that no written policy to do the right thing was available to guide board actions. Also, in answer to citizen questions about board support for the project, the chair tried to suggest they were neutral and had only agreed to narrowly support the grant. That statement belies reason, logic and recent contradictory public remarks by the board chair and town manager.
Now, in a press release dated July 9, the board chair finally provides a response in which he finds "no legal or procedural grounds for dismissing the Shires public hearing or continuing one that is already closed." He does go on to say that the board could legally decide not to accept the grant, but volunteers his opinion for not "reneging" on a done deal. Among other things, he worries about negative impacts on other developers considering future grant applications should the Board refuse to administer the grant. Nowhere does he concern himself with the consequences to the public trust when government business is conducted with a "cavalier attitude" towards its own citizens.
Isn’t it ironic this happened in the same year Vermont enacted a new open meeting law to ensure that our representative democracy is allowed to work through informed citizen participation in matters of public importance. I was taught long ago in an introductory civics class that successful democratic self-government requires the availability of accurate and relevant information with which citizens and their representatives can freely deliberate in an open, balanced and comprehensive manner. Transparency in government administration remains the best protection against abuse of power and to ensure accountability. Unfortunately, the Bennington Select Board needs a written policy to remind itself to be fair and even handed.
Mary Morrissey is a resident Bennington and a State Representative representing Bennington.