New format eyed for Bristol police meeting

BRISTOL — Residents of the Bristol Police District will have an opportunity on Monday, Sept. 26, at 7 p.m. in Holley Hall to decide the future time and format of the annual district meetings, where the police budget is approved or denied.
The town is seeking residents’ approval to change the date of the annual meeting from its traditional late-May timeslot to Town Meeting Day. The meeting would then become a part of regular March town meeting, and district residents would cast paper Australian ballot votes at the polls on Town Meeting Day rather than live votes from the floor of the police district meeting.
Bristol officials have said that they want to change the date and of the meeting to increase participation, raise town awareness about police department affairs and record the annual meeting in the town report.
“We expect that this change would probably increase the number of participating voters by tenfold,” said Town Administrator Bill Bryant.
But some local citizens believe that changing the annual meeting will restrict residents’ say over the police budget.
“The Australian ballot will provide less direct democracy, less chance for the presiding board to hear from citizens directly, less chance for citizens to participate directly, no chance for amending budgets, and less chance for budgets to be defeated,” wrote Robert Bernstein, a former Bristol town manager, in a letter published in today’s Independent.
“A selectboard will always be seen as self-interested if a move in an area that has had a fair amount of controversy promotes eliminating that controversy,” he wrote about the police district meetings, which have been highly contentious in past years. Last year, the police budget was voted down and adjusted for voter approval, and this year the budget passed by a razor thin margin.
“This issue is a classic clash of the traditional town meeting versus the Australian ballot, and there are valid arguments on both sides,” said Bryant.
He explained that a traditional town meeting provides a “great dynamic for discussing, amending and coming to a conclusion,” but the Australian ballot is known to increase participation and offer an additional level of security that voting in the open doesn’t.
“This is just a debate that every evolving community goes through as to what makes sense for the decision making process,” he said. “We’ll have that debate next week and the voters will decide.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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