Bingham grabs spotlight over mailing

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Selectman Craig Bingham on Tuesday sharply criticized what he said was “false” and “misleading” information contained in an informational flier about the proposed $6.5 million municipal building/recreation project  that the town recently sent to local homes and businesses.
The flier was assembled by the Middlebury Town Office & Recreation Facilities Steering Committee, an ad hoc panel charged with planning the two new buildings in anticipation of a March 4 bond vote. With three news broadcast crews filming and print media in attendance at the selectboard meeting, Bingham recounted to his colleagues his shock at seeing the flier in his mailbox on Feb. 19.
“Even though I am a selectman, I was never offered an opportunity to review a draft of the document before it was published by the town,” Bingham, a vocal opponent of the proposed project, said.
“I wondered, ‘Why are tax dollars paying for this?’”
The flier, which cost approximately $3,000, features some full-color representations of the exterior and interior of the proposed 9,400-square-foot town office building at 77 Main St. and a planned new recreation facility on land off Creek Road (see related story on this page). The flier describes “problems with the existing facility” and “key features of the new facilities.”
Bingham charged that the flier uses incorrect figures in describing the financial impact on taxpayers if the project is approved. The flier states a property tax impact of $2 million, equating to 2 cents on the municipal rate for an annual impact of $40 on $200,000 in property value.
“First, this should have been headed ‘Estimated Tax Impact,’ because no one knows the exact tax impact the proposed sale of the bonds would produce until they are sold, and that would not happen until July at the earliest,” Bingham said. “Second, the ‘Town Cost,’ and therefore the impact on taxpayers, would be much higher than $2 million due to staff time expended in preparation, attorneys’ fees, and most importantly, interest payments.”
Bingham added the estimated impact of the bonds on the fiscal year 2016 tax rate indicate 2.24 cents on the municipal rate, “almost a full quarter-cent higher than the mailer states. If that were the case, the annual cost on a $200,000 residence would be $50, not $40.”
He also took issue with some of the descriptions used in the flier. The document describes the proposed new buildings as being “healthy, super energy efficient,” while depicting the current structures as being “un-insulated” and having been the subject of “numerous code violations including lack of fire-rated egress stairs.”
Bingham pointed to past reports indicating the presence of insulation. And he reported receiving an e-mail response on Feb. 20 from Assistant State Fire Marshall Joshua Maxham stating, “Our records show that there are no violations at this location. A fire marshal was there last April and noted no violations.” Evidence also indicates no health code violations during the past 14 years, according to the town’s deputy health officer, Tom Scanlon.
“The so-called ‘numerous code violations’ in connection with fire safety are not supported by any notice of violation issued by the Division of Fire Safety,” Bingham said. “However, reading such a statement can instill fear in the voters, and improperly influence their votes.”
Bingham said that while he is unsure whether the town broke any laws in financing and distributing such a flier, he believes the “public trust has surely been broken, and that is just as bad.”
He suggested that the town send out another flier correcting the information.
Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos was asked for his opinion on the flier, which the Independent e-mailed to his office.
“My office cannot comment on the appropriateness of a flier as we do not have authority to pass judgment on such matters,” he wrote in an e-mail response.
He suggested, as the Addison Independent went to press, that further questions be addressed to the Vermont Attorney General’s Office.
Residents at Tuesday’s selectboard meeting expressed some of their views on the flier.
“I found the flier very informative and unbiased,” resident and Middlebury Tree Warden Chris Zeoli told the selectboard. “Thank you for putting it out.”
Resident Victoria DeWind disagreed.
“I find the flier is over-simplistic, I think the issues are much more complicated and detailed than what is (included) in there, and I consider it more propaganda than information,” DeWind said.
“There was no balanced presentation,” said resident Ben Burd.
Selectwoman Susan Shashok said it would have made sense to have the flier information vetted by the board “ahead of time.” She added she was concerned that Bingham did not get a prompt reply to the concerns he raised about the flier in an e-mail he sent last week to town officials.
Selectboard Chairman Dean George said the provisions of the state’s Open Meeting Law precluded him from answering the e-mail.
“We have to be cognizant of the fact that communicating amongst board members by e-mail, particularly among three or more of us, is a problem,” George said. “I receive a lot of e-mails, hundreds per day, and I go through them all and examine them. I do not respond to them all.”
George added he found nothing wrong with the flier.
“It is a matter of practice that the town has distributed public information fliers whenever it has a project it is presenting to voters,” George said. “It is an attempt to provide information to allow voters to make an unbiased decision about whether they want to support a project or not. People who are obviously not in favor of this project find (the flier) biased. I am sorry for that.
“I found the facts in (the flier) very accurate.”
Nancy Malcolm is chairwoman of the Town Office & Recreation Facilities Steering Committee. She said she believes the flier was factual.
“Our charge, that was put out to us by the selectboard, was to ‘disseminate information about the project,’” Malcolm said. “We followed the protocol of what’s been done for all of the other projects — the fire station, the Cross Street Bridge — and we did exactly the same thing. Nowhere on (the flier) does it say ‘how to vote,’ it just is straight information.”
In other action on Tuesday, the Middlebury selectboard:
•  Continued a public hearing on a proposal by Middle Road Ventures to discontinue a portion of Middle Road South to facilitate a subdivision project.
•  Voted 5-2 in favor of a term sheet outlining a potential lease with the UD-3 board for use of a 2.5-acre parcel off Creek Road for construction of a new recreation facility (see related story). Bingham and Shashok voted against the document.
•  Unanimously endorsed a property exchange agreement between the town and Middlebury College regarding the Lazarus building at 20 Main St. and town-owned land behind the Ilsley Library off Bakery Lane. Under terms of the agreement, the college would purchase the Lazarus building and turn it over to the town for demolition and removal of the structure, while the town will cede its small amount of property off Bakery Lane to Middlebury College for the eventual development of an as-yet undefined economic development project.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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