Ex-Bristol planning chair reflects on term, resignation

BRISTOL — When chairman Tom Wells resigned his position on the Bristol Planning Commission last Wednesday after eight years serving on the commission and four years heading it, the decision didn’t come as a big surprise to the selectboard.
According to selectboard Chair Joel Bouvier, Wells indicated in early October he’d likely have trouble fulfilling his planning commission duties due to an increased workload as an attorney.
In a Thursday interview, Wells explained he planned to resign after a new town plan was adopted, but a recent influx of work led him to resign a bit earlier.
“It’s been a long haul,” he said. “I probably would have stayed until the final vote on the plan, but it had been my (aim) to leave when the plan was done. While I’ve really enjoyed (sitting on the planning commission), it’s not fun. It’s been a lot of hard work. So I’m ready to let someone else take it up.”
Bouvier commended Wells for his performance over the past eight years, including how he handled the tricky topic of sand and gravel pits.
“He did a good job of getting opinions from all sides of the board,” said Bouvier. “Bristol residents are passionate about their town and that’s a really good thing. Tom has tried to keep the conversation going, while listening to all sides of the debate, and then when things get redundant” he moved along.
“It’s a tough job; I wouldn’t want to be the chairman of the planning commission,” Bouvier continued. “When rewriting a plan, you need someone with the patience and time to do that, and I thought Tom brought some real professionalism to the board, and obviously his background (as a land-use attorney) helps him with that.”
Wells’ decision to resign comes after he missed the past three meetings for work-related reasons. It also comes after Vice-chair Chico Martin, leading the Nov. 15 planning commission meeting in Wells’ absence, potentially violated the state open meeting law when he refused to let a member of the public ask a question about a change to a map that set boundaries for a zone where gravel extraction would be prohibited (see related story).
Bouvier said the selectboard would go into executive session at its Monday, Dec. 5, meeting to discuss the possible violation and likely craft a public statement about how the town would proceed with the matter. Wells declined to comment on this issue, but in his resignation letter to the selectboard and in an interview with the Independent he touched upon the chair’s role and the state’s open meeting law.
“As I depart the chairmanship, please let me encourage those who follow me, to make it a goal to encourage a full airing of all views by both the public and commission members,” Wells wrote in his resignation letter. “To the public and the commission members, let me counsel the very real benefit of respecting and deferring to the chair’s decisions, and allowing the chair to make reasonable decisions within the parameters of the Vermont open meeting laws about who speaks, how long they speak, etc., so that order can be maintained … In a best case (scenario), limitations should only be (for) the length of the remarks, those totally inappropriate and for … those that are repetitive or redundant.”
Wells said he resents certain public sentiments expressed at the selectboard’s last meeting, which pointed a finger at the planning commission for often being closed to the public. He said he always tried to accept comments within reason and that he’d usually set aside 15 minutes at the beginning of each meeting for citizens to talk about whatever matters they wanted to discuss. While he acknowledged the planning commission chair should be respectful of public comments, he also said the public needs to allow the chair to fulfill his or her duties.
“I generally believe the chair needs to be fair and reasonable and at the same time people need to be fair and reasonable to the chair,” said Wells. “In order to move forward, you sometimes have to make decisions … This is not an easy job. You have to give some people room to do their job, assuming they’re not doing it way out of line.”
Bouvier said that Wells’ vacant seat would be filled sometime before, or just after, Town Meeting Day, and the planning commission would choose a new chair. The planning commission will next meet on Tuesday, Dec. 6.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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