Last night’s Special Town Hall Meeting resulted in a victory for those who believe that everyone in Bethel is entitled to be alerted about upcoming referendums. Phillip Gallagher and Matthew Knickerbocker were nominated to moderate the meeting. The vote was 81 for Gallagher, 60 for Knickerbocker, counted by Mary O'Leary, registrar of voters.
“There seems to be a lot of confusion as to why we are here tonight,” Martin Lawlor, Town Attorney said, starting the meeting off with his own prepared statement. “This body is acting in an advisory capacity only. Under Bethel’s charter, this body does not have the authority to enact an ordinance. Only the Selectmen have the authority to enact an ordinance. The result of this body tonight is only a recommendation. (An ordinance) is solely within the Selectmen’s jurisdiction.”
Many in the audience were upset that the Call to Meeting language had been changed from the original petition. Michael Duff called to amend the Call to Meeting, and made a motion that the language be changed from “recommend” and returned to “urge and compel.”
A discussion ensued until Billy Michael explained the importance of the return to the original language. He said the words “urge and compel were chosen because those words had teeth”.
Michael said that the change in the language changed the power of the petition that 545 people had signed. He said, “I would hope my friends, and those who are not my friends, would join me in supporting amending the motion.”
Lawlor reiterated that regardless of the language, the petition result would still be a recommendation to the Selectmen.
Lawlor read a letter that he had sent to Michael in the development of the petition,
“Number 4. The special town meeting does not have the authority to create the ordinance. Under the Charter only the BOS can create such an ordinance, thus, if passed by the Special Town Meeting this would be a recommendation to the BOS which they can act on or not.” Lawlor added, “I mentioned on several occasions to Billy Michael that this was a recommendation.”
Michael said he understood what Lawlor had said, and added, “But I believe that changing words to “consider and recommend” materially changed the meaning and effect, of what you all signed.”
Finally, the amendment to change the language was approved 91- 70.
Bill Hillman asked how many in attendance were there due to the email from the superintendent. He was told by Gallagher that he was out of order.
Hillman then spoke on the the affordability of sending postcards to alert the public about upcoming referendums, which he said would come to about 7 cents per person. Hillman stated that with pending budget increases of approximately $22 a day per household, paying for the postcards “is a very good use of postage in favor of democracy.”
Knickebocker then corrected Hillman’s figures, and said that there are 7,400 households, and the cost of the cards was approximately double Hillman’s estimate, at $3,000 to $3,600.
Hillman said, “14 cents.”
Michael Duff returned to the microphone, and said, “We all know that for our democracy to function, we must have an informed elective, and this ordinance we are trying to get passed is in that direction. The more people know what’s happening in our town, the better the vote is going to be and the more it will reflect the will of the community.”
Larry Craybas spoke at length about the responsibility of the school when sending announcements, stating that the Board of Ed follows the State Election Enforcement Commission laws prohibiting the use of public funds for political gain. “The SEEC states that no expenditures can be made to influence a vote,” and reminded the attendees that, “This ban, however, only applies when the referendum is pending.”
Craybas’ next comment brought to light the distrust both sides had with the intentions of the other. “My concern is with the spirit and intent of this ordinance. I believe they are duplicitous, and commentary heard during the budget season and recently at the public hearing and on-line blogs leads me to believe that limiting the rights of the education communications prior to a referendum is the real objective of this ordinance.”
Dian Craig, mother of a child in the school system, called upon everyone to recognize the division that was occurring in the room. While that point was well taken, her next was an example of how misunderstandings and division between the groups.
“The way I communicate is with my phone. I sit down at my computer, I email, I text on my phone and I do this because that is the way people communicate now. People go up to Sycamore and they communicate, but we communicate by email. I don’t want a piece of paper. I don’t want to have to throw away something else. I don’t want to take your rights away but don't take away my right to get an email. It doesn't make sense to me that there is so much division. Turn on your tv, turn on your radio, but don’t take my email away.”
Mary Lou Strano said, “We are not taking your email away, but there are a lot of people here who don’t have computers. Don’t they have a right to know when meetings can be held? We are asking for the same right, to be notified just like you are. It’s our right.”
The point resulted in a discussion of other ways that residents could be reached.
Kitty Grant asked for robocalls, and the First Selectman told her, “I am in favor of all communication. You cannot over-communicate with voters. I had said we would do a robo-call, and Lawlor said that you can’t do it.”
Explaining the legal issues with using the robo-call list, he said, “We told you, if you sign up for this, it will be protected and not available to political organizations or telemarketers. We sat with homeland security and an attorney with FOI (Freedom of Information), and they said if you use it for anything else, your shield goes away and you basically have to start over.”
He added, “You can sign up for this, but know other people can get your number. So we said, what if you can do a postcard? I have never been opposed as long as we had the budget to do it. Our staff will not have the time to address 7500 cards manually. That is another layer of communication that everybody should get. There is no need for all or none. I am in favor of all. That’s it.”
Gallagher asked if the BOE are subject to the same FOI restrictions, and Lawlor said that because they are students, they would be. However, Lawlor said that if town wanted to start a separate email list they could, but those emails would be available to anyone.
Two Board of Ed members spoke in favor of All or None. William Duff said, “I am here to support the issue. Dr. Smith’s newsletter are fantastic, but there are also a lot of people who do not use computers, and you are entitled to the same information that any special interest group is. I encourage all to support this motion.”
Another BOE member, Brian Terzian, said, “This has metamorphosed into a school versus town issue and it shouldn’t be. The solution is not to say we are taking anyone’s rights, but that if we put our heads together, all sides win.”
One of the last speakers, Bruce Tibbitts came to the microphone and held up his cell phone. “I have one of these, and I bet its faster than yours.” The crowd laughed and he continued, “I get about 50-100 emails every couple of days.”
Tibbitts then held up a postcard and said, “I am here because I got one of these. It’s junk in my mailbox, but you know what the difference is? I put it on the table and I don’t forget.” Pausing, he added, “Of course, I could set a reminder in my phone...but to the point, everybody gets equal information.”
A final vote was taken and the resolution was passed. From 168 voters in attendance, there were 87 ayes and 57 nays.