Sharp exchange marks forum on mayor proposal

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BENNINGTON — The first of two public forums regarding a ballot question that would open the door for a mayoral form of government lasted only a few minutes Monday night, punctuated by a sharp exchange between a proponent of the ballot question and Select Board Chair Tom Jacobs.

The first of two speakers on the matter was Nancy White, a leader of the petition to place the question on the March ballot for the fourth time in 19 years. The forum lasted only about 15 minutes.

To begin her statement, White clarified the process that would take place if residents voted "yes" on the ballot question.

A "yes" vote would only add an amendment into the charter, but nothing would happen until 2020 when proponents could return with another petition for a vote at the 2020 annual March meeting on the question.

If residents vote yes in 2020, a mayor would be elected in 2021.

"The whole point why many of us want a mayor is we feel that the citizens of this town — especially the taxpayers — have not been heard," White said. "Over the last decade, an awful lot of the information we used to get in a timely manner has not been given to us. We're paying for far too many things today that we ever paid for 20 years ago and shouldn't be paying for now."

A benefit to a "yes" vote would mean that residents would have an entire year to observe municipal meetings, listen to what's going on in Bennington and decide whether the town is going in the right direction, White said. If residents decide the town is not going in the right direction, then they can vote to have a mayor.

While addressing reasons why a mayoral form of government would be beneficial to the town of Bennington and may increase town official's transparency and accountability, White brought up Bennington's salt shed episode, in which the town still awaits a fine for beginning construction before being issued a wetlands permit.

"The salt shed remains a thorn in the side of many people of this town," White said. "We're still waiting to find out who will pay the fine, who is paying the lawyer negotiating between the town and the state on the salt shed."

"Is there a lawyer being paid to do that?" she addressed the board directly.

Jacobs told White that the forum is for her comments, not for the board's comments.

"This is your comments, not ours," Jacobs said.

"I asked Mr. Campbell last week if we would get answers; he said we would," White said, referring to the Jan. 28 meeting in which Vice Chair Donald Campbell acted as chair in Jacobs' absence.

"Well, guess what? I'm chairing this meeting. This is your opportunity for comments," Jacobs said before White spoke again.

"And see, this is why we need a mayor," White said. "Prior to a decade ago, Vermont was about the citizens. Our elected officials listened to the citizens."

"It's stunning to watch the meetings where citizens talk and you don't want to answer questions," she added. "I don't want to argue; I just want an answer."

"Guess what, your opportunity tonight is to comment," Jacobs said, reiterating that this is the first of two public comment forums being held on the subject.

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"You are our elected officials. I entrust my tax dollars to you," White said.

"This is not a public hearing for the purpose of dialogue between the Select Board and yourself," Jacobs said. "This is for the citizens to make their comments relative to this ballot item and nothing more."

"But I'm sorry, when did public hearings not allow you to give us an answer?" White asked.

"We don't have answers," Jacobs said.

"You don't know if we're paying for a lawyer for the salt shed?" White asked.

"It's not germane to this discussion," said Select Board Member Chad Gordon.

"It's not germane at all to this," Jacobs added.

"Sorry to interrupt, but this is about the mayor's ballot," Gordon added. "And this is about the ballot question. That is not germane to the ballot question."

White continued with her statement, debunking some rumors she says she has heard about the ballot question.

For those who say the mayor would have too much power, White says there would be checks and balances between the Select Board, mayor, and the citizens.

"It's a win-win situation for everybody and it starts to give us our voice back," she explained.

White said she's also heard that a mayor would incite a "popularity contest," but argued that is not the case for those who own homes in Bennington.

"Many of us are struggling to pay our taxes today," she said. "We will not be able to afford our homes in a decade. We need somebody who will stop spending our money; we do not have the money to spend. Every time we turn around, there's a new project, a new program, a new group that the town can't live without."

Bennington resident Aaron Sawyer took to the microphone after White and asked for clarification as to who she means when she refers to Bennington "taxpayers."

Jacobs informed Sawyer that the public forum is not meant for a dialogue between citizens.

"At the end of the day, I think the system that we're using right now works," Sawyer said. "It may be flawed, it may be slower than people want, but I think it works and I think we need to worry about electing members to the Select Board if you want to see change, rather than flipping the system on its head."

The board motioned to adjourn until the second hearing on the topic on Monday, Feb. 11 without further discussion.

Christie Wisniewski can be reached at cwisniewski@benningtonbanner.com and at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.


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