Editorial: Middlebury’s Tea Party? Rarely has this town see an issue hijacked by a small minority

In what is clearly an end-around tactic to derail the proposed town office project in Middlebury, a handful of town residents forced a vote on Tuesday that nullified a previous 5-1 decision supporting the measure — an action that may prevent the measure from coming to a public vote, all because of a dubious conflict-of-interest complaint. 
The tactic is similar to the Republican Tea Party’s recent debacle in Congress in that a small minority of Middlebury residents, and at least one selectman, realized they could not stop the municipal building/recreation center initiative by a straight-up vote of the selectboard or risk a vote of town residents. Rather, they resorted to sabotage. That’s a sad day in Middlebury politics. Rarely has this town seen an issue hijacked by a small minority on the selectboard or a few disgruntled residents.
Here’s the upshot:
• The board voted 5-1 on Oct. 8, with Selectman Travis Forbes absent and Selectman Craig Bingham opposed, to endorse a term sheet with Middlebury College that encompasses the proposal. The proposal’s main components include razing the current municipal building and building a park; building new town offices next to Ilsley Library; and building a new recreational facility near Mary Hogan Elementary. The college would contribute a total of $5.5 million, leaving the town with just $2 million to bond.
• A citizens’ petition at this Tuesday’s selectboard meeting forced votes that questioned whether two selectboard members, Victor Nuovo and Susan Shashok, should have recused themselves from voting because of the town’s conflict of interest policy — whether it violated it directly or whether there could be the “perception” of a conflict — and that the Oct. 8 vote be nullified unless they were cleared of the allegation. (See story on Page 1A.)
• Three selectboard members — Chairman Dean George, Nick Artim and Gary Baker — voted that there was not a violation of the town’s policy. Two members — Bingham and Forbes — abstained or said there was. Because the board failed to produce a four-vote majority (required of all votes) to reject the conflict-of-interest allegations, the measure to nullify the Oct. 8 vote passed with just two votes.
That’s representative democracy? That’s being transparent and honest? That’s instilling public trust?
No, it’s obstruction. It’s damning the process because your side is losing the argument. Like Tea Party radicals, it’s being willing to win at all costs even if that means their efforts would harm the public good, which in Middlebury’s case means a real likelihood that any other proposal would significantly raise property taxes on all town residents.
Heady charges, you say.
Not at all. Here are the facts:
• Craig Bingham has been the lone, steadfast vote against this proposal from day one. While he has brought up a few valid points that have been addressed in the summer-long discourse, he and several other town opponents have seen the writing on the wall — they don’t have the votes on the board or among town residents to kill the project.
• Bingham has been on the board for several years. In those years, and despite some more obvious conflict-of-interest circumstances, he and others have stayed mum. Suddenly, and for the first time in the 29 years I’ve been covering town events, the town’s conflict-of-interest policy is invoked and reverses a major initiative — and it is invoked by opponents of the project. Coincidence? Hardly.
• Both conflict-of-interest complaints are specious. If small towns are to entice people with knowledge and insight into town affairs, it’s common that those people would have past connections to various entities in their communities. Familiarity is not a conflict. Conflict rightly comes if the elected official can prosper from the action taken. In neither case could Nuovo or Shashok or their families prosper from a vote on this matter. Middlebury College Treasurer Patrick Norton confirmed as much at Tuesday’s meeting.
• Bingham’s rebuttal is that public trust is at risk even with just the appearance of conflict, which is true and which is why Nuovo presented a letter to the selectboard and public two weeks ago to explain his status at the college (he’s effectively been retired for 20 years). We agree it’s good to ask questions and seek transparency. But it’s conniving to parlay that absence of conflict into the “appearance of conflict” and weasel taunting seeds of doubt into the mix where none should exist.
Still, not sure of the opponents’ motives?
Ask this question: Why not allow the selectboard to put the issue before the voters? That is the straight-forward objective supporters of the project had hoped to do. Opponents, we assume, don’t want the voters to decide the issue because they’re certain they’ll lose.
But here’s what rankles: The tactic takes two supporting votes off the table, and allows one staunch opponent to cajole just one undecided member to join his perspective, therefore rejecting a majority of five. That’s a grave disservice.
What can be done?
Two things: In a revote of the term sheet between the college and town on Nov. 5, a majority of four selectmen could approve the measure; if that vote fails to gain a majority of four (three votes are solidly in favor and one fervently opposed), a citizens’ petition representing 5 percent of registered voters (roughly 230) could petition to put the matter before the voters. That’s a matter all seven selectboard members would decide and there’s little doubt the measure would be decided in the affirmative.
Like Tea Party diehards, opponents of the current proposal need to weigh carefully how far they are willing to go to obstruct a democratic vote by town residents, lest their reputations be irreparably harmed. These tactics are beyond the pale, and most residents will remember.
Angelo S. Lynn

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