BENNINGTON - The town began the year on edge when a well-liked science and math teacher began posting videos critical of his employers, and ended it up in arms over an ordinance amendment written to restrict panhandlers, which some say was an attack on people who are homeless. The following is a synopsis of these and other notable stories that took place in Bennington this past year.
A "panhandling ordinance" passed by the Select Board in November, sparked at least one large protest along with numerous letters to the editor and Internet comments. The local law is actually an amendment to an existing ordinance, and it restricts "soliciting," commonly called "panhandling." It also prohibits people from using their cars as housing in public places.
Word is a petition is circulating to ask voters whether or not to repeal all or parts of it. It came before the board via the town manager, who said local development groups reported tourists were complaining about panhandlers.
The board has resolved to ask voters for a bond that will fund, in part, an estimated $3.3 million water project. The cost is to be shared between the town and Southern Vermont College. The benefit to the school is it will go on the town's water system and not have to worry about water testing, while the town will be able to build a water tower, which will solve water pressure issues at Jefferson Heights and Crescent Boulevard.
The Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless appeared to be bouncing back after it reported early in the year that its financial figures had been inaccurate and it was running a deficit. After its director, Kendy Skidmore, resigned it hired a professional auditing firm and centralized its operations at the warming shelter on North Street. It also closed a shelter in North Bennington which had been infested with bed bugs. The group's leaders said the changes are allowing it to serve more people for less money than before.
Former acting Southern Vermont College President James Beckwith committed suicide in February, on the same day federal authorities cited him for allegedly embezzling $440,000. Beckwith was the college's chief financial officer, but stepped in for President Karen Gross while she took a leave of absence to work for the U.S. Department of Education. According to authorities, Beckwith used his position to get the college to cut three large checks which he claimed were to settle lawsuits over a failed dormitory project.
Official charges were not filed, only complaints. The college was sued over the dorm project by three New York companies, however those were filed in June through the U.S. District Court in Syracuse, N.Y. They claimed they were owed $3.8 million after Beckwith allegedly scrapped the project because of disagreements over the use of local labor.
A local science and math teacher at Mount Anthony Union High School put the community on edge after posting a series of YouTube videos in which he was critical of the Southwestern Vermont Supervisory Union and its leaders. Steven Davis, a beloved science and math teacher, posted the videos in January, and he was asked by police to surrender a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle along with hundreds of round of ammunition after neighbors saw him putting the rifle in his car.
Davis told police he was moving the weapon into storage, and gave it up voluntarily. He then spent some time in a medical facility, later telling the Banner he had suffered a mental health episode triggered by a change to his medication and other stressful factors in his life. He said he could understand people's concerns and never intended to frighten anyone.
A month before, a gunman massacred 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., putting the fear of school shootings in peoples' minds.
In February, Davis was accused of trespassing at his own home, which a court order forbid him to enter. He pleaded guilty and received a deferred sentence.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at email@example.com; Follow him on Twitter @kwhitcombjr.