More transparency needed in Bellows Falls
Editor of the Reformer:
This letter was read at the Rockingham Selectboard meeting on Jan. 5, in reference to Sheriff Keith Clark's proposal regarding the Liberty Mill "Justice Center" and the efforts of the Bellows Falls Area Development Corporation executive director Frances "Dutch" Walsh (who is also the Town of Rockingham Development Director) to further this project.
Last week, unclear as to why such effort has been put into the facilitation of the recent proposal of the Windham County Sheriff, and what they see as the long-term benefits to the town, I contacted the Rockingham Development Director. I urged his office to get ahead of the tsunami of citizen ill-feeling and conduct a public forum explaining his support. He told me that his office was essentially compelled to work on the behalf of any business with a good business plan. He said he had no intention of holding a public forum, as he had "more important things to do" then making a presentation and getting yelled at. He also stated that BFADC, as a private entity, "doesn't have to tell you anything."
I then penned a note to the Town Manager reiterating my concerns. The manager, whose work I generally respect, quickly responded. "A developer with a reasonable plan," he wrote, gets to make the call of when to go public. That's a reasonable argument, though it does not take into account that explaining why Town Hall thinks this is a credible plan might be a good idea once the thing is out.
Town Hall either doesn't realize that many taxpayers are scratching their heads in honest befuddlement or else are perfectly aware and just doesn't want to get yelled at.
A walk through The Square and a visit with a few businesses would clear up the first. If the second, while getting yelled at is unpleasant, it is just part of the job that one has to put up with now and then. Outreach and damage control are called for right now. It is unwise to hunker down and hope the anger will just go away. It won't.
Last month I said, and I say again, that the Selectboard should arrange a public forum explaining why Town Hall thinks the proposal is in the long-term interests of the citizens of Rockingham. I would also suggest the following: A thorough performance audit of the Development Office over the last 8 years; unbundle BFADC from the Development Office by rescinding the 1984 agreement between the Selectboard and BFADC allowing the Development Director to serve as BFADC Executive Director; have the Selectboard return to twice-monthly meetings in order to provide direction and oversight to Town Hall; and allow a vote at Town Meeting to ascertain the level of citizen support of the Sheriff's proposal.
In his note, The Town Manager wrote, "Should the public be able to vote the outcome of a business coming to town then the public should be able to vote a business to leave town."
Sounds sensible, but last year the Selectboard voted 4 to 1 to outlaw a medical marijuana dispensary in Rockingham. Since the Selectboard is the elected representative of the public, I trust the board and the manager are already planning to rescind that vote, and also that vote a couple of years ago against a crematorium downtown, of which I remember little except Sharon Boccelli's memorable line, "I'm going to be cooking meatballs and they're going to be cooking grandma."
I encourage the board and Town Manager to usher in a much needed new era of transparency in governance, one in which the townspeople's opinions feel welcomed and respected, even when those in positions of power disagree.