How to keep voters informed about the specifics of a proposed bond vote as well as how and whether to respond to public criticism was discussed by the Waitsfield Select Board this week.
The board, at its February 11 meeting, discussed the content of a mailing that the town’s Town Office Task Force wants to get to residents prior to Town Meeting. At Town Meeting in March, voters will be asked to approve a $1.6 million bond vote by Australian ballot to purchase land and construct new town offices.
The process of selecting that site generated significant public interest as well as a concerted and vocal public effort towards the task force and the select board selecting a different site. The task force recommended and the select board accepted the recommendation that town offices be built on a parcel of land known as the Flemer Farm Stand in the village. At the request of citizens, the task force also considered rehabilitation of the former Methodist church in the village. Ultimately the task force opted for new construction at the Farm Stand because of a cost differential of about a million dollars.
At their meeting, the select board discussed whether the task force or the select board should send the mailer out and how the text should read.
“Is it simply explanatory and informational or does it have some convincing force, one way or the other?” asked board chair Sal Spinosa.
“It is directed solely towards the approved site that the board has confirmed and it explains the bond vote and the principles the task force used and the impacts on voters in terms of costs,” explained board member Charlie Hosford, who also served on the task force.
“Be careful that it doesn’t promote it,” said board member Paul Hartshorn.
“It just lays out the fact,” Hosford said, and added that it had to be at the printer by Friday, February 15.
Spinosa said he favored getting unbiased information out to voters and said that he felt the mailing should come from the select board versus the task force. The task force, he said, had fulfilled its job and made a recommendation to the select board. Now the bond vote proposal is being advanced by the select board and, thus, the board should send the mailer, he said.
Board member Logan Cooke said that the issue of location of the town offices was an emotional one and that the board should expect an emotional response to the mailer.
“We don’t want to be seen as having an opinion,” Cooke said.
Other members raised the issue of whether the mailer should include information about the process and how the Farm Stand parcel was chosen over the Methodist church.
To do that, Cooke said, would be “rehashing the discussion.”
“Let’s not hash through all the history. Let’s talk about the site and the bond vote,” Spinosa said.
Later in the evening the board came back to the issue of communication between the public and the select board when board member Bill Parker raised the issue of whether the board should be responding to comments, questions and misinformation about the town office project (and other issues) that appeared in letters to the editor of The Valley Reporter.
“I’m just wondering if this board, as a board, should respond to comments that are addressed to the board in the paper. If citizens are calling into question the ethics or approach the board has taken, or its actions, then should the board respond? Should there be a written response in The Valley Reporter if the board is being called to task?” he asked.
“We can use the newspaper to get the information out there. It bothers me when information is being called up in a letter or My View that is inaccurate. I feel that it is our responsibility to correct it. I feel we should always be moving to correct information that is inaccurate when it’s made public in the newspaper,” he continued.
Board members concurred that it is frustrating to try to handle differing perceptions and conceptions of how select board actions are interpreted and also discussed the fact that people – whether they write letters to the editor or not – don’t always base their information on facts, relying on conversations over coffee or at the post office.
Cooke said he felt responding to the letters to the editor was public relations suicide.
“In terms of opinion pieces and letters, I don’t think responding helps. You come off as argumentative and combative,” Cooke said.
“People make assumptions that aren’t fair and spread them. But that’s politics and there’s not a lot you can do about it,” he added.
Board members talked at length about public trust and the public perception of what the board is doing and the intentions of board members. The board discussed holding regular public symposiums or gatherings for members of the public to raise issues of concern, take members of the board to task for actions, praise the board, etc.