Bennington mayor proposal debated by residents
The Select Board held the first of two hearings required for a binding referendum on the March 6 ballot that would substitute an elected mayor for the town manager's position and add a veto provision for the mayor.
Chairman Thomas Jacobs stressed that the board would withhold commenting until after the second hearing, Feb. 5, allowing the public to have its say.
Justin Woodie said "the events of the last few months have have made it obvious that, now more than ever, it is time for a new direction in Bennington."
He and other speakers were critical of longtime Town Manager Stuart Hurd for approving the start of construction for a salt shed near the new town highway facility before an expected wetlands work permit was received from the state.
The manager admitted on Jan. 8 that he authorized construction to begin last year, which has opened the town to a possible fine from the state Agency of Natural Resources.
The board afterward met with Hurd in executive session but has yet to say whether any decisions were made concerning the situation, and the state has yet to announce its decision on possible fines relating to the violation.
Woodie termed manager's actions "shameful," and the lack of strong action by the board "equally so." He said the entire situation illustrated a lack of transparency in the current government and a need for change.
Joey Kulkin called on the "silent majority" of residents to take action by voting for the mayoral plan.
"I think it is the perfect time to vote for a mayor of Bennington," he said. "This is the opportunity we have been waiting for. Now the power in our hands."
Kulkin said he could think of many reasons to vote for a mayoral format, but Hurd "breaking the law" concerning the salt shed decision and the board's lack of decisive action afterward should convince voters. That decision could cost taxpayers $42,000 in fines, he said, referring to a maximum fine for such a violation mentioned by a state official.
Jackie Prue and William Stewart also spoke in favor of the ballot question.
Stewart, who also announced he is running for the Select Board, said the referendum is "a simple proposition" that substitutes an elected mayor for a hired manager. That would eliminate a situation in which "no one is held accountable," he said.
The current format, Stewart said, "is an old design that is not working" and a "monument to irresponsibility and inefficiency" that shows in a lack of new development in the downtown and problems in the school system.
A mayor "gives the community a face" and an elected official "will be responsible," he said.
Prue cited a survey the board posted last year that showed dissatisfaction with some aspects of town government. "People were not happy with the present government," she said.
Prue also was critical of the response she said members of the public receive when approaching the board, saying, "They never get answers."
But several other speakers defended the current manager/select board format, even while not condoning Hurd's decision.
"I do think Stu may have made a mistake," said Douglas Krause. However, Hurd has been manager for more than 25 years and has done a good job, he said.
Krause also echoed several speakers who were critical of the proposed "strong mayor" format, noting that under the current system, the Select Board can remove a manager with 90 days notice, while a mayor could only be ousted in the next election.
Al Bashevkin said he has lived in town for 30 years and seen the town government deal well with many issues, including closing the former landfill, responding to Tropical Storm Irene flooding, and PFOA contamination of local wells.
"Maybe we can tweak it," he said of the current format, but added that a change from a professionally trained and hired manager to a mayor elected in "a popularity contest," and not necessarily knowing how to run a government, did not sound like an improvement.
A town staff member, Finance Director Melissa Currier, said she doesn't believe an elected official could manage a town without a significant amount of staff assistance.
The person would need to be trained, "which would slow down tremendously" the work of the staff, she said, "and that would all come at great expense to the taxpayers."
There is also the chance the training process would have to begin anew after the next election, Currier said.
Several speakers said they feel more comfortable with a professional hired by the Select Board managing the town, especially as the board both hires and can fire the person with notice.
Lora Block agreed, saying the town needed professional management, and that to "suddenly change" the entire government format would imperil ongoing projects like the Putnam Block redevelopment plan for the downtown.
She added, "We are seeing what can happen in Washington when someone who knows less than zero about administrating" is elected to office, a reference to President Trump.
It also would be "a fantasy" to think that bringing in a mayor would suddenly change everything about the economy, Block said, advocating working with the format the town has to effect change.
Londa Weisman agreed that switching to a mayor "would not magically change" the challenges Bennington faces. She said she favors keeping the current system while trying to make improvements within that format.
Brendan Coogan, a retired teacher, said he appreciates the civics lesson the ballot question is providing, but said he will vote against a mayor. "It's not a good idea," he said,.
"Did [Hurd] make a mistake? Yes, he did," Coogan said, "but most of the time he has done an excellent job."
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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