KEITH WHITCOMB JR.
BENNINGTON -- The chairman of the Bennington Select Board told a local cable access cameraman to stop filming the board’s Monday meeting briefly during a heated exchange between a board member and a citizen.
The argument was between board member Jim Carroll, who owns and operates Jimmy Joe’s Curbside Grill, and Mike Bethel, a citizen.
Bethel was accusing the board of forming opinions on town business via email in violation of the state’s open meeting laws. "I’ve seen a lot of emails where opinions are being formed that should be formed out in public here between you folks and the audience on issues," he said.
"We don’t form our opinions solely through email, or through public discourse here," said Carroll. "It’s done in a variety of ways, and to suggest that in some way we are negligent ..." At that point, Carroll was interrupted by Bethel, who accused him of putting words in his mouth. Both began to speak at once while board Chairman Joseph Krawczyk attempted to regain control of the meeting, pounding his fist on the table.
"Two meetings ago, he called me a blackmailer," continued Bethel. "Tell him to stop using negative words towards me."
Krawczyk told Bethel he would get his turn to speak, and let Carroll continue.
"First of all, you did attempt to extort me," said Carroll. "That is a fact."
"There he goes again," said Bethel.
"Turn the camera off," said Krawczyk. "Turn the camera off."
"And the audio," said board member Sharyn Brush.
"And the audio," echoed Krawczyk.
Board meetings are filmed by Catamount Access Television (CAT-TV), which films and broadcasts many public meetings and events in the area.
Krawczyk told those at the meeting to conduct themselves in a civil manner, but was interrupted by Bethel who was still angry with Carroll. "You’ve accused me in two meetings, (Carroll), of doing something illegal. I haven’t done anything," said Bethel.
"You absolutely did," replied Carroll.
Town Manager Stuart Hurd said the matter was not something the board needs to deal with, to which Krawczyk agreed, saying that was why the camera was off. He suggested Bethel write to the Bennington Banner and told him he had been given the emails he requested and that the board was not doing business through them.
"Turn the camera back on. I have a right as a citizen to be on camera," said Bethel.
"I’m not going to give you the opportunity to come up here and say things that are not true," said Krawczyk, adding that if Bethel brought the matter up again the camera would be turned off once more.
Bethel said he has shown the emails he has to Paul Gillies, an attorney in Montpelier, and that it was Gillies’ opinion that board members were conducting business through email.
An email Bethel used as an example was from Burlington Labs Drug Testing, which was sent to Hurd asking if the town would consider marking a "Day of Recovery." Hurd said before the camera went off that he forwarded the email to the board to see if they would take the matter up. He said it is common for town employees and the board to figure out what will be on the meeting agendas in this manner. He said, for the record, the Burlington Labs request would be discussed.
CAT-TV has been filming meetings for many years, and in the past has had to overcome resistance to the practice.
"We are not there at the board’s request, we are there at the public’s request," said Lisa Byer, executive director of CAT-TV, on Tuesday in an interview with the Banner. "We cover 20 live meetings a month gavel to gavel so the public can see what is happening at our town and school boards. Having been asked to shut the camera off goes against our coverage of those meetings."
She said she has spoken to Hurd about the matter, and made it known that camera operators will not stop filming if requested and will instead explain CAT-TV’s policy on filming meetings that are open to the public.
"I think our camera operator was put in an uncomfortable position, and I think given the circumstances he reacted appropriately, but it’s an opportunity to have a discussion on what our policy is," Byer said.
She said it is clear Krawczyk was also in a difficult position, and did what he thought was right to get the meeting under control, but she disagreed with the method he used.
"I feel that as the chairman of the board I have an obligation to maintain order," said Krawczyk. "There’s nothing in our charter that says that our select board meetings have to be televised."
He said no one, including a Bennington Banner reporter, was asked to leave the meeting. "I just told them to turn the cameras off," he said. "I see nothing in statute, I see nothing in the charter that says I’ve got to leave the TV on so that the people out there can witness things that shouldn’t have been said live on television."
Krawczyk said he could make the motion that CAT-TV no longer film the meetings if this becomes an issue again, but more likely he would just halt the meeting if it gets out of order and people refuse to calm down.
"I’ll just call a recess, and the select board will get up and leave, which is my right to do so," Krawczyk said, adding that the meeting could begin once tempers had receded and if CAT-TV wished to film an empty table while that happens, it can.
Hurd said he had spoken to Byer about the matter, and it was agreed the proper action in that scenario would be to recess the meeting.
Carroll said in an interview that his issue with Bethel stems from an incident in July. He learned Bethel had been making inquiries with the Bennington Town Office about his vendor permit. Carroll pays an annual vendor fee to run his curbside grill. According to Carroll, he has an arrangement with the town to pay this fee over the course of the year rather than up front. This deal was reached before his election to the board.
Carroll said he confronted Bethel about this at a gas station, saying he was forceful but polite. Carroll said Bethel told him he would stop questioning his business practices if he changed his opinion on the Johnson Controls issue.
Johnson Controls is an industrially zoned parcel of land that Bethel has been a proponent of rezoning to commercial, but the board voted to leave as it is.
"That’s absolutely not true," said Bethel in an interview. Bethel said that he informed Hurd that Carroll’s signs were in violation of the town sign ordinance and that Carroll made a scene about it at a gas station deli.
Bethel said he does not intend to drop the matter over emails. He said other towns share communications with the public, and said the Burlington Labs email was something the public should have been made aware of by now, given the issues with drugs in the community. Bethel said that email is just an example of problems he has with board communications.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.