Lee-Clark seeks return to Bennington Select Board

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Editor's note: This is a profile of one of the six candidates vying for two open seats on the Bennington Select Board.

BENNINGTON — Select Board member Bruce Lee-Clark, who was appointed in July to fill a board vacancy, is seeking a full term this spring as one of the six candidates vying for two open seats.

Most of the issues that compelled Lee-Clark to run last March, and subsequently to accept his appointment after a board member stepped down, are still on his mind today, he said in an interview.

He still wants to stress transparency in local government and public participation, Lee-Clark said, adding that he is sometimes taken aback when he realizes many residents aren't sure what the board can do and when it can only offer support.

"I'm surprised at what people don't know about the Select Board," he said. "I don't know how many times I've been asked, `What are you going to put in Kmart?'"

Since the vacant former Kmart building in Bennington Square center is privately owned, Lee-Clark said, he explains that the town can facilitate a purchase or project but the owners have the final decision.

One area of community involvement Lee-Clark said he would like to "tweak" is the board's policy concerning citizen commenting during meetings.

"What I mean is that as board members, we should be able to ask questions for clarification and in order to direct an appropriate response or to place on a future agenda, etc. I would like us to be able to track questions, concerns, and ideas, and make sure there are timely responses by the Select Board. Right now, we are encouraged not to respond in any way. It is a subtle change that I want the board to consider."

Another update he would favor, Lee-Clark said, would involve the display of information on the town website.

"I don't think the website is as transparent as I would like it to be," he said.

Voting issues

Lee-Clark said he is concerned "about people coming to the polls, in light of issues raised about the validity of voting in town," referring to alleged mistakes or fraud in local elections.

"I really do trust in the polling process here," he said. "I got the great chance to see it first-hand," during a recount in his select board race.

He praised the Board of Civil Authority for "the kind of care that they took" in recounting the ballots.

Lee-Clark also had it reinforced that "every vote really does count," he said, and he hopes that no one will not vote because of "concerns and issues people have raised [about voting in Bennington] without any real substantive evidence that I've seen."

Those issues have primarily been raised by Kevin Hoyt, a former Republican candidate for the Vermont House who has said he plans to run for governor in the coming election, and his girlfriend, Colleen Harrington, who is a candidate this spring in the Bennington Select Board race.

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Hoyt has contended in Facebook posts that there have been multiple mistakes concerning votes in local elections and also fraud. Town officials, including the current Select Board members, have denied the allegations and contend that town elections results are accurate.

Police report

Lee-Clark also said he wants to be on the board when a consultant's report on a review of the Bennington Police Department is released, saying that is now expected in March.

"I think how we respond to the report will be very telling for us ... And I am very interested to hear what [the consultant team] has to say on how we are up to best policies and practices [for police departments]."

The review was conducted over the past four months by a team from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which was hired by the town.

The study was prompted by a suggestion from Attorney General T.J. Donovan in late 2018, after questions were raised about the BPD's response to former Bennington Rep. Kiah Morris' complaints of racially motivated harassment and threats.

Morris, the only female African American state legislator in the state, stepped down that September, ending her re-election campaign, citing continued online harassment.

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The option tax

Lee-Clark said another "big issue for the voters" has been consideration of a 1 percent local option tax for Bennington.

The issue is on the annual warrant in four questions — asking whether voters will approve adding the 1 percent tax to state sales taxes on retail sales, room, meals and/or alcohol sales.

Under the state option tax program, the 1 percent is collected along with the state's sales taxes, and 70 percent of the total is sent back to the community, while the remaining 30 percent goes to the PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) program for communities that host state property that is exempt from local taxes.

In Bennington's case, Town Manager Stuart has estimated that, based on state figures for last year, the town would have received about $1.27 million from the option tax if all four sales categories were in effect.

"My biggest obstacle," Lee-Clark said, is with a tax on retail sales, which he believes a regressive tax on those who can least afford it on items they might need.

However, he also noted that there are a number of items that are exempt from the retail sales tax.

"I am interested to see how people vote [on the tax]," he said, "and I think it's essential that the Select Board vote on how to spend the money if the taxes are approved."

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The board tentatively agreed to discuss and vote on how any option tax revenue should be used next year after residents voice opinions during a public hearing on the issue Monday.

Board members also indicated they would establish a policy of holding hearings each budget season and voting on what to do with the option tax revenue.

Lee-Clark added that he would hope to see some revenue go toward a project like the planned replacement of the Willow Park playground. Rather than just offset property taxes, which is one of the uses suggested, he said projects that "make Bennington an attractive place" for residents and businesses would provide more benefit over time.

He also is looking forward to completion of the Putnam Block project at the Four Corners and hopes that spurs development throughout the downtown.

That should include better use of some of the second and third floors of buildings for housing units, he said, with commercial development on the first floor. In that regard, Lee-Clark said he would want to make sure zoning in the downtown doesn't hinder such redevelopment projects.

Negativity

Lee-Clark said he also wants to counter that residents "sometimes have a really negative view of this town. That really drives me crazy."

When he retired in 2018, Lee-Clark said some of his friends "were amazed we wanted to stay in this place," but he and his wife never considered retiring elsewhere.

"We really need to change that negative view," he said. "People here are really wonderful people who would give you the shirt off their back."

Lee-Clark narrowly lost a bid for the Select Board in March 2019 but in July replaced Carson Thurber when he stepped down to become headmaster at Stratton Mountain School.

The board appointed Lee-Clark to replace Thurber in part because he lost out in the annual election by the thin margin of three votes. He requested a recount, which confirmed the result, by five votes.

Lee-Clark retired in 2018 after 22 years of teaching law courses at the Southwest Vermont Career Development Center.

Prior to joining the CDC faculty, he was a practicing attorney working for Legal Services of Central New York as the head of the AIDS Law Project. He received his bachelor's degree and a law degree from Syracuse University and a master of divinity degree from Harvard University

After working as a Methodist minister and attending the Syracuse University College of Law, Lee-Clark was hired at the CDC and moved to Bennington in 1995.For six years, he served as president of the Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services board when it became a separate entity from the Interfaith Council.

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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