BENNINGTON >> Five of the seven candidates for the Selectboard participated in a roundtable discussion on Thursday at the Bennington Firehouse, which was hosted by WBTN and Catamount Access Television.
The debate was moderated by "News and Views" host Robert Ebert, and the timekeeper was WBTN general manager Aaron Sawyer. The discussion was filmed, broadcast, and livestreamed by CAT-TV, and was broadcast live on WBTN. Present were the sole incumbent running, current board chairman Thomas Jacobs, who sat alongside challengers Jeanne Conner, Jeannie Jenkins, Michael McDonough, and Don Miller. Mike Bethel and Jason Bushee are also running. On March 1, voters will choose three candidates out of the seven when handing in their ballots.
Each question was asked to every candidate, and candidates had two minutes to respond. Ebert was quick to point out that the event was not a debate, and that candidates should not refer to other candidates, and that no rebuttals would be offered.
Partway through the evening, Ebert asked the candidates, "Is it a conflict of interest for a member of the Bennington Selectboard to also be a member of the Better Bennington Corporation board?," referring to an online campaign by Bennington resident and former selectboard candidate Joey Kulkin to question the ethics and legality of that situation. Jenkins is currently the president of the BBC board, and McDonough is the vice president, while Jacobs is a member. Board member Michael Keene and outgoing board member Sharyn Brush both also serve on the BBC board. Kulkin has argued on Facebook that, "The BBC is a nonprofit like so many others we have in this town so why is it that the BBC can have several sitting Select Board members who give the BBC $75,000 in downtown tax monies, free rent, and a suitcase full of cash from the general fund?"
"No," answered Jacobs, the first candidate to whom the question was asked, without hesitation, "I know a conflict when I see one. There is no conflict. The Better Bennington Corporation, and the other agencies and volunteer organizations around town, survive only through the effort of folks that participate as members or volunteers. Frankly, if we don't become members of these agencies, and add to their vitality, then we might as well fold our tents. There is no conflict for someone on the selectboard to participate as a member of an organization, when he or she has no personal gain. The town is the beneficiary of that exercise, it's not the individual." Without naming names, he suggested that anyone questioning this should read more into laws regarding conflicts of interest, stating, "conflict means you get a personal benefit, and I can tell you, as a member of an organization and as a board member, you are providing a community support at all levels, and I would suggest we have to continue. We're a small community and when you lose members, the volunteers, we're not going to be very vital."
The other present candidates agreed with Jacobs. Jenkins said that "transparency, honesty, and doing what is in the best interest of the community" is what all board members are charged with doing, and that they must all think very carefully about conflicts of interest. McDonough said, "I share in the belief that we have a wealth of valuable people in this community, who give of themselves in countless ways. I think to impugn their commitment to the community, that their motives are somewhat questionable, I think is really sad." He later said, "We're not doing this for personal gain, we're doing it to give of ourselves to the community."
Candidates were also asked their opinions on whether the town was getting its money's worth out of the office of Economic and Community Development, which is directed by Michael Harrington. "I do think the taxpayers are getting their money's worth," said Jenkins, the first candidate to answer, "the question is, what do we expect the economic development office to be doing? I think we're in a transitional time in Bennington. We're moving away from having a few employers that employ large numbers of individuals to smaller companies employing fewer employees, and having more of those small businesses. This isn't something that is just happening in Bennington, it's happening all over the country... We need someone who is doing exactly what Michael Harrington is doing, in making sure the economic partners are coming together, and that all the tools we need to be able to work with businesses as they grow, and as they ask questions about being in this community, are there for businesses to take advantage of."
McDonough largely agreed with Jenkins, arguing that, if the town continues on the path it is currently on, it will see results. Miller was more skeptical however, and said that the office seemed to lack a clear vision, and that there needs to be more done in both cooperation with local entities and outreach to bring people and businesses into the town. He pointed out that the Chamber of Commerce is going through a similar transition period, and that the two organizations should work together, and with the BBC, to identify ways to improve the town's economy. Harrington's younger brother, Matthew, was recently named executive director of the Chamber.
Conner hesitated to pass judgement on the office, as she was "on the outside," but she did say that there has been more buzz about economic development around town than ever before. "I think that's a fantastic first step," she said, "You can't solve problems unless you're aware of them, and I think there's a lot more awareness of who the players are and what economic development could look like."
Other topics discussed included the traits candidates would look for in the next town manager, their opinions on the possibility of a local option tax, whether an abundance of subsidized housing was positive or negative for the economy of Bennington, and how poverty is affecting the town. The full recording off the discussion will be aired on CAT-TV and is currently available on their YouTube channel.