Disclosure of college offer ruffles feathers

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College’s offer to provide $5.5 million to the town of Middlebury to help construct a new municipal building and gym comes a year and a half after the institution offered $2.875 million in aid for a similar project, according to Selectman Craig Bingham, who this week decided to divulge the proposal that he said was discussed and rejected by the board during a Dec. 6, 2011, executive session meeting.
Both the current offer and the 2011 offer have called for the college to receive the present town offices/gym site at the intersection of College and South Main streets, a provision that Bingham has adamantly opposed. Bingham believes the town should rebuild the town offices and gym on-site and not cede that land to the college, which would turn the property into a public park.
Bingham disclosed the heretofore sealed information as part of a letter to the editor that runs in this issue of the Addison Independent. In that letter, he describes what he said has been several attempts by the college since 1999 to secure the current municipal building site. He said this information runs counter to the majority board position that the town, rather than the college, has been driving such a deal.
Meanwhile, other selectboard members are expressing dismay with Bingham’s decision to unilaterally disclose the executive session information and maintained that the latest effort to include the current town offices property is a deal being driven and initiated by the town, and not the college.
“What disappoints me is as a sitting member of the selectboard, I wish he had raised this at a (board) meeting,” said Victor Nuovo, vice chairman of the Middlebury selectboard. Nuovo is a professor emeritus of philosophy at the college and — along with board Chairman Dean George — approached the institution earlier this year with a request for aid for what is estimated as a total $7.5 million project. The project, if endorsed by voters, would result in a new 8,000- to 9,000-square-foot municipal building being erected at the current site of Middlebury College’s historic Osborne House at 77 Main St. and a new public gym built somewhere in the recreation park off Mary Hogan Drive.
Middlebury College would contribute $5.5 million toward the estimated $7.5 million price tag, which calls for the town to demolish and remove the current municipal building and gym at the intersection of College and South Main streets and give that parcel to the college, which would turn it into a park. The community would also be responsible for moving the Osborne House from its current location to a town-owned parcel at the intersection of Cross and Water streets.
According to Bingham, the college in 2011 made an “unsolicited” offer of $2.825 million, which he broke down as follows: $2 million for the site of the municipal building/gym; $500,000 towards demolition of the structures; $200,000 through gifting to the town the Osborne House property; and $125,000 in college assistance with permits and planning.
Bingham said the selectboard, by consensus, elected to reject the offer — an assertion confirmed by then-board members.
George recalled he and his colleagues respectfully declined the offer because they were committed at the time to redeveloping the town offices and gym at their present location. But that commitment eroded during the ensuing months as the board learned that erecting a new municipal building and renovating the gym on-site would cost $6 million to $10 million — an amount a majority of the board believed the taxpayers would be hard-pressed to approve.
That’s when Nuovo and George began privately speaking with college officials about the prospect for aid.
Nuovo and George said neither the selectboard nor the Town Offices Steering Committee solicited the 2011 offer.
Then-selectboard Chairman John Tenny said he believes the college — during the course of some of their monthly, private town-gown luncheons — got the sense that the town was facing a conundrum on the town offices issue and stepped forward to help.
“I think (through the town-gown luncheons) the college administration might have misread the signals of what the town’s hope and direction was,” vis-à-vis the town offices and gym, said Tenny, who supports the current college offer. “It was nothing more than that. We got it corrected and moved on.”
George said the college offer might have been precipitated by an informal initiative by then-Town Manager Bill Finger.
Finger on Wednesday said he did not feel comfortable discussing the issue, stating the executive session nature of that information.
Bingham said he elected to disclose the executive session details of the Dec. 6, 2011, college offer based on his interpretation that it no longer fit the condition that said information constituted a contract “where premature general public knowledge would clearly place the state, municipality, other public body, or person involved at a substantial disadvantage.”
“I disclose this information now because doing so will not place the town at a disadvantage,” Bingham states in his letter to the editor. “The current deal has already been struck, and the voters deserve to know the facts when they eventually cast their ballot on the offer.”
Secretary of State Jim Condos said in an e-mailed response for an opinion: “There is no legal restriction on disclosing information discussed in executive session, however, there may be other legal reasons the information is protected from disclosure.”
Dave Donahue, special assistant to Middlebury College President Liebowitz, described his recollection of how the offer was made
“In November 2011, as the process to look at replacement of the municipal office building and renovation of the gymnasium was beginning, the college reiterated its interest in the site and was invited to submit a proposal,” Donahue said. “We learned very quickly that the selectboard’s preference was to work through a public process to determine the viability of the existing site. The college withdrew its proposal and supported the town’s efforts to engage the public.
“This past spring we were informed that the town was open to a discussion and we were asked if we would present a new proposal,” he added. “This led to the current plan that is before the steering committee, the selectboard, and ultimately the voters.”
Liebowitz has also written a letter to the editor, appearing in this issue, on the college’s offer of assistance for new town offices and a gym.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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