More questions, please

Posted
Bennington's contract with a water bottling company to sell water from the Morgan Spring stands as a fine example of why deliberation and public input are needed in the Select Board's decision making process.

Fourteen years ago, the town entered into a contract with Vermont Pure, allowing the company to take up to 500,000 gallons of water per week from the Morgan Spring. The pumphouse sits off Bradford Street, near the Bennington Recreation Center. The town is paid $0.0075 per gallon. In 2016, the town collected $80,000 from the water sales.

While the contract limits the amount of water that can be pumped out per week, it does not limit the number of trucks used to do it. Bradford Street resident William "Bill' Stuart said that within the past three or so years he's noticed a significant increase in the number of trucks coming and going from Morgan Spring. Often they'll wait in line, idling, three at a time, making a general nuisance of themselves. According to Stuart, the trucks were obnoxious even before the uptick in traffic. Complaints to the town, he said, have caused the problem to die down for short periods of time, but it persists.

Stuart has also persisted, bringing his complaints to Town Meeting Day and several board meetings. Now, it seems, the board is working to find a solution. The odds of said solution costing money are quite high.

Some of this trouble might have been avoided had the Select Board at the time done a little more due diligence in vetting the proposal brought to it by Town Manager Stuart Hurd. While Hurd kept the board informed about what he was doing, there was no public vote by the board, no public hearings, and from what we can tell little to no open discussion by the board at a public meeting.

It's been suggested that the process under which this contact came to be is illegal, thereby making the contract null and void. We're not lawyers, but we fell those hoping for that particular outcome may be hoping for too much. Town managers have the authority to do things like this and select boards have the authority to allow it.

It should be noted that none of the current board members sitting today were on the board 14 years ago when this contract was signed. The board of today might have held more public discussions on the matter and sought input from those who would likely be affected. The contact might then have been a little better. Even if it wasn't, residents of Bradford Street might at least feel like they had a voice.

Then again, maybe the current board would have done no such thing. At its May 22 meeting, the board authorized Hurd to put out to private bid an approximately 44-acre town-owned woodlot recently logged for $128,000. The chance to bid is being offered exclusively to the two abutting landowners who, according to Hurd, intend to leave it undeveloped.

Hurd said the town does not have clear, legal access to the property, making it unlikely that anyone besides the abutters would want it. It's since been learned that the town does have clear, legal access to the parcel.

The board asked Hurd a total of two questions regarding the sale before moving the bidding process forward. Board member Jeanne Conner asked if the town had the option to open the bidding to the public. It does. Jim Carroll asked how the Career Development Center came to be involved with clearing some of the undergrowth. The CDC offered.

The only other information the board had prior to its vote was a memo from Hurd saying mostly what he told them verbally, plus the fact that the lot won't be available for logging for another 25 years. The board still has to vote to accept — or not — a bid.

Selling the land off in a closed bidding process might well be the right move, but a little more research and deliberation is in order first and we hope the board looks into the matter further.

Hurd is an experienced, competent town manager and in most cases the board does well in taking his advice. Even if the board's initial thoughts on an issue aren't changed by extra deliberation, at least the decision made can hold up against scrutiny if — years later — it leads to unforeseen problems.


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