Harrington hoping to change Bennington town government
Editor's note: This is one of six Banner profiles of candidates seeking a Bennington Select Board seat in the March 3 annual election.
BENNINGTON — Colleen Harrington thinks the town needs to stop doing things the same way it has been — especially when it comes to spending money; she's running for the Select Board hoping to bring about a change.
"I decided to run after a lot of thought," she said during an interview. "I've never been political. My father [the late Lawrence] "Moe" Harrington, was. He was on the school board for many years when I was growing up, but I never really paid attention."
But she adds, "I really started looking at the current state of affairs and I was concerned. I've been studying the [town] warrants. I have an accounting degree. I've been studying the warrants extensively, and I just feel there are places where money could be managed a lot better."
Harrington questioned several recent or ongoing town projects, contending there are spending decisions in each that should be examined. Those include the so-called "pocket park," or Park at 336, on Main Street; the Splash Pad project off North Street and the Recreation Center addition and proposed expansion project.
At the pocket park, she said, items such as benches could have been purchased at a much lower cost, and she thought estimates of in-kind work done for the project seemed inflated.
"The BBC (Better Bennington Corp.) — that's another issue," Harrington said. "They've collected almost a million dollars over the last 25 years. Is the Select Board happy with the betterment of the downtown? Some of it, maybe — and I agree, not everything is bad."
But Harrington said there are many questions she would ask about downtown development as a Select Board member.
Harrington also cites the Splash Pad project, which stalled last year after apparent flaws became obvious with the concrete base, which did not meet contract specifications. The town later sued the original contractor, which had been given a partial payment of $90,000 and won a court judgment, including $362,619 in damages.
Another contractor has been hired to finish the project — developed by the Grow Bennington Initiative, the town, and the BBC, which cooperated on the grant- and donation-funded project on a town-owned parcel at 109 North St.
With the Rec Center, Harrington questions decisions involving the town's agreement with United Counseling Service and the Head Start program it manages, which is funding through a grant an addition to the center to provide early childhood services.
"At the Rec Center, we certainly needed Head Start," Harrington said. "I'm not sure why they chose the Rec Center land, because now the kids don't have [nearby] ball fields."
She added, "Some of the decisions that are being made I really question: The lease for UCS at the Rec Center. They leased that for 90 years to them for a dollar. Why would they do that?"
The town would likely need "another five to seven million [dollars] to build a second story on the Rec Center," she said, referring to a proposed town-funded second phase of the project. "Bennington doesn't have that right now."
She also questions the town's contract with Family YMCA of the Berkshires to manage the Rec Center and its programming, saying she suspects a long-term goal is for the YMCA own the facility — which town officials have denied.
"You know, they worry about me looking through their records, but wouldn't you want your spending to be transparent, especially when my 86-year-old mother can't afford her house anymore because of property taxes? The value in the house hasn't gone up, just the taxes."
Harrington said she is unsure whether to support the suggested purchase of the former Southern Vermont College campus by the town.
"I don't know, I would have to look at figures," she said. "I mean Southern Vermont College for four million dollars is a steal, if you could get it for that."
She said it might depend on whether there could be revenue-producing aspects to such a purchase.
An offer by a private secondary school to purchase the campus for $4.9 million recently was withdrawn after the school trustees estimated the cost of maintaining the campus buildings, including the historic Everett Mansion, was higher than expected.
Harrington also has been highly critical, along with her boyfriend Kevin Hoyt, with whom she lives, of voting procedures in Bennington.
She said she researched some apparent discrepancies in town voter check lists and the voter participation lists filed with the Secretary of State's office, and other information, and found "300-plus names" of voters incorrectly listed, not listed when they may have voted; listed as having voted when they say they did not vote, or may have voted twice.
That could reflect multiple mistakes by the town clerk's office, the Board of Civil Authority or other officials, Harrington said, and in some cases she believes fraud occurred. She stopped short of contending that there have been hundreds of cases of voter fraud, going back decades and affecting elections, which is a claim Hoyt has made on his Facebook page.
Hoyt, an unsuccessful candidate for the Vermont House in 2018, has said he intends to run this year for governor.
Town Clerk Cassandra Barbeau, the current Select Board members and Town Manager Stuart Hurd have said the analysis of the voter lists by Harrington and Hoyt was flawed; and in some cases, such as involving absentee voting and student voting, the allegations represent a misreading of state election laws and regulations.
The officials said that, while a very small number of human errors are possible during an election, recounts provide a check when the results are close, and the final totals are checked and certified at the local level by the Board of Civil Authority — comprised of the justices of the peace, the Select Board members, the clerk and assistant clerk, including representatives of both major political parties.
Harrington contends that errors were made and possible fraud occurred in some cases.
"They are sure to put it off to clerical errors, but how much can you put off to clerical errors?" she said, adding that the clerk and her staff are well-paid and shouldn't make mistakes.
Concerning possible fraud, she said, "I know that is true."
One case of an absentee ballot voter who has lived in Canada for years involved instances of not following regulations for such voters, Harrington said, an allegation that Barbeau and Hurd denied was the case.
"I just think someone needs to look at it," Harrington said. "Whatever is going on, someone needs to look Because I have lost faith in our election process. Why wouldn't they want to look at it? Why wouldn't the Select Board want to look at it? It makes no sense."
Born in Bennington
"I was born and raised in Bennington," Harrington said. "My family has been here for anywhere from 10 to 14 generations. My uncle, Ted Morse, when I asked him how many generations, he smiled and said 'forever.' My father, Lawrence E. "Moe" Harrington, was extensively involved in the betterment of Bennington. His name is displayed in many places all over town."
She added, "I decided to run because I love Bennington and Vermont, and I do not like the direction that it is headed ... I believe my background makes me uniquely qualified to be an asset to the community by serving on the select board."
She said she has a computer information degree, as well as an accounting degree, obtained through Community College of Vermont.
Harrington also has a bachelor's degree in business administration from Johnson State University, with a focus in law.
"I was able to achieve all this and still raise my family by completing a program for medical transcription through Burlington College," she said. "This allowed me to work from home and be there for my children, as I have three children and three step-children who have lived with me since birth."
She said she also worked as assistant director of the finance department at a local law firm, as an outpatient billing supervisor with St. Peter's Hospital in the Albany, N.Y., area, and as an income tax specialist.
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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