On April 1st, several hundred Town citizens came together for the Town Meeting to review the Town and School budgets. Given the topic, how best to tax Bethel's citizens and spend that revenue, it was a reasonably orderly meeting. Everyone had a chance to speak on topics from the cost of sand to the need for new band uniforms. Our editorial that week praised our moderator for such a well run meeting. And at the following referendum, the School budget passed while the Town and Capital budgets did not. Which led to the Town Meeting on April 24th. At that meeting, held to consider the updated Town budget and Capital budget presented by the Board of Finance, only a small fraction of the first meeting turned out. Yet discussion was abruptly cut short, with many in the audience indicating that they wished to speak being denied the opportunity to do so. Tempers flared. People stormed out.
To some extent, whether the required 2/3rds of present registered voters approved the motion for an early end of discussion is not the point. Whether non-registered voters were allowed to participate is not the point, either. Bethel is a wonderful, small town made up of neighbors who came together to consider what to do in order to get to a viable Town budget. Silencing the voices of registered voters is a terrible, wrenching thing, whether the technicalities allow it or not. We expect better, and fear that the Town will be dragged through the need for a third Town meeting in large part due to the growing backlash from this maneuver. That would be a heavy price to pay for whatever gain came from cutting off 15 or 20 minutes of additional discussion.
Whenever we are called to meet again, we hope that all voters will have the chance to ask their questions, voice their proposals and concerns, and that we never again see such a terrible deprivation of basic inclusion. Because Bethel deserves much better.
Since publication of this editorial, some have mis-interpreted this as a critique of the Town Meeting Moderator, Alice Hutchinson. It is not. We are extremely impressed with Ms. Hutchinson's calm, professional management of a very unruly meeting. We are, however, deeply disappointed in the actions taken by meeting members who saw fit to silence fellow Bethel citizens in order, at best, to shave a few minutes from an information packed meeting, or, at worst, to prevent discusion of other voters concerns or questions.
Published Sunday, April 28, 2019