BRISTOL — A vibrant community discussion about public input in Bristol municipal government has grown out of an incident last month, when acting Bristol Planning Commission Chair Chico Martin refused to accept public comments from resident John “Slim” Pickens.
On Tuesday, Martin kicked off the planning commission meeting by issuing a formal apology. He then took steps to ensure greater transparency, initiated the creation of guidelines to govern the commission and is exploring ways to better facilitate discourse between planners and with the public (read the story here).
This came after the Bristol selectboard at its Monday meeting provided a public statement about the issue surrounding Martin and Pickens.
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“The board regrets the controversy that has arisen due to the denial of an opportunity to air a public comment at that meeting,” reads the statement. “The selectboard does not believe that the ruling of the acting chairman violated the letter of the open meeting law. However, the board believes that in the spirit of that law it is better to allow more, rather than less, public participation in our public meetings. We would like to take this opportunity to encourage all town boards and commissions to welcome input from our citizens.”
Selectboard Chair Joel Bouvier also attended the first portion of the planning commission’s Tuesday meeting and offered words of support.
“I do want to let the (planning commission) know the board supports you,” he said. “You guys for four or five years have night after night … tried to do what’s best for the community. It’s a tough plan, and I hope it goes through. We have to learn to play together. We’re not going to all get our way.”
Since Pickens was at the planning commission’s Tuesday meeting, its first meeting since Martin denied Pickens’ comments, Martin apologized to him directly.
“I hope that you didn’t take any personal offense at our last meeting,” Martin told Pickens. “I had decided beforehand, due to the circumstances of us having finished the town plan and having a consultant … to keep the comments to the agenda. I didn’t know you were going to be the only person here, and, obviously in hindsight, I would have let you speak … We had plenty of time to do that as it turned out. I do apologize.”
Pickens accepted Martin’s apology, but expressed sincere disappointment in the board. He explained that in the past few months, certain members of the board have made comments about representing the people based on their own discretion rather than public polls, surveys and past votes.
“I really am concerned and confused about the methodology of this board,” Pickens said. “If the planning commission is here to serve the citizens of this community, it would seem to me that they would take into account the many surveys, polls and votes — actual votes — that have happened over the last five years concerning the town plan and the regulations when they’re making their decisions. As a citizen of this community, I feel like you’re not listening to us at all because all of these votes have clearly shown that … gravel mining near the downtown is not desirable.”
In a planning commission poll on Town Meeting Day, residents favored prohibition of earth resource extraction in the town’s conservation zone. But at an April planning commission meeting, the majority of those planners in attendance voted to go against the poll and permit extraction in that zone.
Planner Willow Wheelock responded to Pickens, saying that the behavior of one or several board members does not reflect that of the entire board. Decisions, she said, are made through compromise, and no decision can satisfy everyone in the community.
“I think this board is really trying and I think we do really represent a diverse spectrum of opinions in this community, all of which are valuable and important,” Wheelock said.
She too apologized to Pickens for the incident at the Nov. 15 meeting.
“I will take accountability for not saying something at the last meeting that we had. Something uncomfortable happened. I was uncomfortable with it, and I didn’t say anything,” she explained. “I apologize to you for that, because as a board member, I should have spoken up. I was caught off guard … but that said, I support the work of this board … I think it’s important that we hear what the public has to say.”
At Monday’s selectboard meeting Bristol resident John Moyers asked selectboard members whether their appointed bodies, like the planning commission, serve the board or the wider public. Selectboard members unanimously responded: “The wider public.”
Pursuing this issue of government boards serving the public, Moyers told the planning commission on Tuesday that a greater window for citizen-official discourse is necessary.
“There needs to be a chance for dialogue. It can’t just be a one-way of people (asking questions). I think it … ultimately frustrates the process,” he said.” I think it ought to be questions and comments, not just public comments. Otherwise, where is the dialogue? Because you don’t do it during public hearings.
“If there’s only comments, things can only end in periods … That’s very dissatisfying, and we’re all neighbors here. We should be able to have these discussions about rationales.”
Planners said that when members of the public asked questions at the commission’s public hearing on the proposed town plan, they took many of the questions into consideration and deliberated on them several weeks later, rather than discussing them in length at the hearing.
Wheelock agreed that the board should look at ways to increase public discourse.
“I would ask the board members that we do take some time at a meeting in the very near future to look at the way we have chosen to do business … and have a conversation about if that still makes sense, or look at some of the suggestions that have been made,” she said.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at firstname.lastname@example.org.