Board wants policy in place before considering other displays

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BENNINGTON — The Select Board has decided that no additional public displays or signs on public property will be considered until a formal review and approval policy is in place.

A policy was recommended by town attorney Merrill Bent after the board voted in July to allow a Black Lives Matter street mural in front of the town offices. The draft policy was approved on an interim basis Monday.

However, a few revisions were discussed during the meeting, and a final discussion and board vote is expected during the next meeting, on Sept. 28.

Bennington resident Mike Bethel, who proposed two signs for the town office lawn proclaiming "Blue Lives Matter" and "All Lives Matter" to "balance" the BLM mural, called in during the teleconference meeting to push for immediate consideration, saying his proposal was made public last week, prior to the policy.

Bethel went on to berate Chairman Donald Campbell and the board for what he termed unfair treatment compared to the Black Lives Matter mural organizers, whose project was approved.

He earlier contended that making him apply under the proposed new policy is "very unfair and quite unconstitutional."

Bethel later said he would "not beg a Select Board member" to sponsor his project, adding, "All right, I won't put [the signs] up."

"Blue Lives Matter" is widely regarded as a countermovement to the Black Lives Matter movement, focusing on violence against police officers and their role in fighting crime. Critics say this discounts the fact becoming an officer is a choice, while skin color is not; and it shifts the focus from attempts to institute policing reforms and from often blatant discrimination by police against Blacks.

"All Lives Matter" is cited as an inclusive counterpoint to "Black Lives Matter." Critics say it ignores long-standing discrimination specifically against Blacks, which the BLM movement seeks to address.

LEGAL ADVICE

Campbell said the board was advised after approving the Black Lives Matter mural that it should have a policy to address further expected requests. He said the board is now establishing a policy and therefore won't consider additional displays before that is in place.

"I think it is important that we nail down how to respond [to requests]," Campbell said.

He added that much of the criticism of the board's vote to allow the mural focused on the lack of an established process for approving such public displays, and the board "has taken that to heart" and wants to address that sentiment with a policy.

Campbell acknowledged the board might have been wise to have a policy before approving the mural, but added that "we are not going to compound the problem" by considering another display without a formal process.

Bethel contended the policy seems designed to block his proposal, saying, "What hoops am I going to have to jump through?"

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Referring to a provision in the policy calling for at least one Select Board member to act as sponsor for a proposed display, Bethel said, "You didn't make RAD do this."

Rights and Democracy - Bennington supported the Black Lives Matter project, which was organized by a group of residents and local artists and created Aug. 30 during a community event that included volunteers helping to paint the lettering on the edge of South Street near the offices lawn.

Bethel has commissioned Greg Van Houten, owner of GVH Studio Inc., to create images of his two proposed lawn signs, and he is seeking approval of the board to have them constructed and installed.

Town Manager Stuart Hurd and Assistant Town Manager Daniel Monks said Bent recommended that the town consider a public display policy shortly after the board approved the BLM mural.

Monks said the policy is largely based on one adopted in Montpelier. Like Bennington, he said, the state capital also has had street murals that sparked controversy and further requests for alternative messages.

In Bennington, controversy over Black Lives Matter and the mural has raged on social media and in letters to the editor, and has included threats to deface the BLM mural. In addition, four people protesting during the street mural painting Aug. 30 were arrested, and two face criminal charges.

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Bethel and others have contended that it is unfair to allow the mural and not allow "All Lives" and "Blue Lives," or police, to be similarly permitted.

Those supporting the mural generally contended that Blacks have been discriminated against and have been victims of violence disproportionately throughout the nation's history, and that experience is unique and should be recognized.

FREE SPEECH ISSUES

Hurd said the placing of signs or artwork on public property might involve freedom of speech issues under certain circumstances, but the board in most cases has control over what is allowed.

"You as a board control what is placed on public properties," he said, adding that the situation differs from free speech expressed elsewhere or in a different format than a permanent or semi-permanent display.

A policy, Monks said, allows the board to establish guidelines, requirements and a review process for any proposed displays.

The policy requirement for display ideas to be first sponsored by a member of the Select Board left him a bit "queasy," said Bruce Lee-Clark, who said it seems a restricting "gate-keeping function" affecting who is allowed to set up displays.

However, Vice Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins thought that provision "was a really wonderful aspect" of the policy, in that an idea that has no chance of being approved but would likely spur a divisive debate in town could be halted without formal board action.

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Conversely, she said, it is common for at least one board member to approve an idea, even if they don't support it, if they think it should be aired publicly.

Dan Pietrucha called in to express reservations about the policy, including that he believes it would be more democratic to require citizens to gather signatures if they want to bring forth an idea, rather than to require a board member as sponsor.

Mary Gerisch, one of the organizers of the Black Lives Matter mural, called into request a revision to a section on the duration of murals or displays, which limits them to 12 months in one section of the policy but allows exemptions to that in another section.

She suggested a referral within the first section to the exemption provision.

At Monks' suggestion, the board agreed to submit questions or concerns about the policy in advance of the next meeting to Bent for review. He also suggested having the attorney attend the session to answer further questions about legal impacts of revisions that might arise.

POLICY PROVISIONS

The proposed policy allows displays at the "sole discretion" of the Select Board, which may "approve, deny or approve projects with conditions."

The board "may also refuse to take up the review of a project it or table the project at any time during its review," the police states.

There are installation and post-installation guidelines and community impact guidelines the board can consider during a project review.

Design guidelines include whether it enhances "community identity, pride, and unity;" provides "the highest quality artwork available;" increases "public exhibition opportunity for artists and craftspeople" from the area; encourages "public participation and interactions with public spaces;" represents "a positive interest or value worthy of public recognition;" enriches "the public environment for both residents and visitors;" strives "for diversity;" and reflects "the social, ethnic and cultural fabric of the town."

No commercial speech, logos or advertising would be allowed in displays, and copyright laws must be complied with.

The town also may "revoke the approval [for projects] for any reason and at any time, even post-installation."

The complete interim policy was posted on the town website with the meeting agenda for Monday.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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