BRISTOL — After Bristol Planning Commission Vice-Chair Chico Martin refused to accept public comments from long-time Bristol resident John “Slim” Pickens at last week’s planning meeting — an action that Secretary of State Jim Condos said potentially violated the state’s open meeting law — a small group of concerned citizens spoke out at Monday’s selectboard meeting.
The Bristol residents — fewer than 10 were there — called on the selectboard to strengthen their oversight of the planning commission, increase government transparency and improve public engagement at local meetings. Selectboard Chair Joel Bouvier said the board was investigating this issue, and he handed selectmen a video of the planning commission’s Nov. 15 meeting to review.
Bruce Duncan, Bristol resident for 25 years and managing director of Terasem, kicked off the discussion about public participation in Bristol.
“I’m really concerned that we may have a greatly improved (town) plan, but the capacity of the community to participate in a democratic way and a genuine way (at planning commission meetings) is becoming shredded and narrowed, and people are getting a bad taste in their mouth,” he said. “There’s a need for leadership.
“Because the planning commission isn’t elected — it’s appointed by you guys,” Duncan added. “ I’m here to ask you … to seriously take some leadership in not just having an improved plan … but to have a resulting process from which that’s delivered that … actually strengthens us as a community, not weakens us.”
Duncan said it might be time to evaluate how public participation can be improved in Bristol in a way that local officials can still fulfill their duties. He also touted the power of different opinions being incorporated into local decision making.
“When people start … avoiding public comment because of what they heard happen to someone … it just has one of those ripple effects that I think weakens our community’s diversity of ideas, which I really value,” he said. “And I think it makes your job harder … If this was a private enterprise … that’s one thing, but this is the public’s business and I feel that there’s been a breakdown and a lack of oversight.”
He offered to donate his time toward improving the town’s public engagement process and told the selectboard they “have oversight responsibility, not just for the technical performance, but the civil performance of anybody that’s going to take on the responsibility of being an elected or appointed official.”
Pickens publicly spoke out for the first time since he was shut off last week.
“My question is do you really want the input of the people? … Surveys, polls, votes, many people coming to give their ideas — not listened to,” he said about the planning commission’s process in creating a new town plan. “Is the public input really wanted? I would say by the evidence of the planning commission, they’re not interested. It doesn’t matter how many people come to give our opinion. It doesn’t even matter if we vote down their plan. So, what can we do? How important is the public input? How important is the public will? Or do the powerful get to suppress the will of the people?”
He then brought up the extraction-prohibition zone in the proposed town plan, which would prohibit mining of sand and gravel in and around downtown Bristol. When seeking clarification about a sudden and crucial alteration to that controversial element of the plan at the planning commission’s last meeting, he was silenced.
“(The no-extraction zone) got cut back a little bit, but it still protected the village,” he said about the previous version of this zone. “Everyone was reasonably happy, there was a compromise. And then we pretty much think the issue’s over and so most of us don’t come (to meetings) … and then at the (Oct. 20 meeting, after the public hearing on the proposed plan) they come up with a map that really doesn’t reflect what most people thought was agreed to.”
Selectboard member Sharon Compagna told Pickens that not everyone who speaks at a meeting is necessarily representative of the public.
“I can’t swear to the fact that (the planners) are listening to everyone, but I think that we should remember that they listen to people in other spots other than at the meeting, (like) people who don’t come to the meeting that contact members … I think perhaps they are listening to a broader group — I can’t say that for sure — but not everybody’s willing to come to a meeting and speak in that aspect.”
Both Pickens and Duncan responded to Compagna’s comment.
“Let’s not forget we have these official things called votes and they’ve been very clear, so that should take a little more weight,” said Pickens about the 2010 Bristol town vote to turn down a previously proposed plan and about a public poll taken at Town Meeting Day last March to gauge the majority view of the no-extraction zone, which, in one instance, the planning commission acted tangentially to.
“We should be talking about transparency,” said Duncan. “It’s very easy for someone to say I’ve listened to other people outside of this meeting. And it’s very hard to evaluate whether that’s being said from a place of genuine integrity … I’d ask the selectboard to look beyond the surface … I think we need trust through transparency in our local government.”
As far as the town plan goes, Bouvier said when the selectboard has finished working on the town budget for next year, it will begin considering the proposed town plan update and hold two public hearings. During that period of consideration, he said that he’d like to hear from a breadth of opinions.
“I think we need a town plan,” said Duncan, “that is visionary in that it reflects the vision of a broad diversity of stake holders in the community.”
A video of the potential violation of Vermont’s Open Meeting Law at last week’s meeting of the Bristol Planning Commission is available at addisonindependent.com/multimedia. Reporter Andrew Stein is at firstname.lastname@example.org.