Town Meeting Reps want River Garden debate

Wednesday March 13, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Supporters of maintaining a public space in the Robert H. Gibson River Garden want to take their fight to the floor of Town Meeting.

A group of Town Meeting Representatives is putting forth an amendment to Article 21 on the Warning to fully fund River Garden operations this coming year.

Building a Better Brattleboro owns the Main Street property, and the group did not include the funding required to keep the doors open to the River Garden in the proposed budget that Town Meeting Representatives will consider at the meeting on March 23.

Now the Committee for the River Garden is asking the reps to put funding back into the BABB budget to maintain the River Garden for another year, and also to give the town, and concerned residents, a year to come up with a sustainable plan for making sure the River Garden continues to be used as a public meeting and event space.

"We feel like we need a little breathing room to put together a plan," said Robert Oeser, a member of the Committee for the River Garden. "A clear majority of the people I speak with says we need to have this discussion."

BABB members say they have been trying to keep the River Garden afloat for the past few years, and they say they gave themselves until fiscal year 2014 to come up with a plan to find the funds necessary to maintain the public space.

After years of running a deficit, and watching the River Garden drain funds from BABB's core work of supporting downtown business, BABB board members did not include River Garden funding in the proposed 2014 budget.

The group is now seeking requests from private or public groups to take over, manage, or purchase the building.

Oeser says the Committee for the River Garden members want to fund the River Garden for next year, and they also want to form a townwide committee to develop a plan and then report back to Town Meeting Representatives next year.

They are asking residents to contact their reps and urge them to support the amendment when it is brought up at the Representative Town Meeting.

When the River Garden was being developed, the state of Vermont provided a $150,000 grant, which passed through the town, and supporters of the public proposal say that public money should control whether a for-profit group or individual should be able to take over the space.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Putney, maintains that legislative counsel has determined that the money will be forgiven and whether the property changes hands or not, the public money will not have to be repaid.

Town Manager Barbara Sondag said the town is waiting for that determination in writing, though she understands that White, and Montpelier officials, are working on it.

Oeser says if public money was used, then the public should have a say in the building's future.

"The town is already involved. The money passed through the town," he said. "The town should have oversight in the process."

According to Town Clerk Annette Cappy, the group has every right to make a funding amendment from the floor of Town Meeting, but Town Meeting Reps cannot force the Selectboard to spend the money on a specific line item.

So if the additional money is approved at Town Meeting, it is still not clear if the town, and in turn BABB, would have to sidetrack the current plan to seek RFPs on the continued use of the River garden.

Oeser said some group members are going to meet with new Town Moderator Lawrin Crispe this week to make sure they understand their options for Town Meeting.

"A lot of people feel as though we have to have this conversation," Oeser said. "We have a very short period of time to come up with an idea. I think there is room for negotiation and I want to make sure the town is part of that."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at, or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow him on Twitter @HowardReformer.


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