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First Selectman, Matt Knickerbocker and Billy Michael write about Old Town Hall

Two opinions on the demolition of Old Town Hall.

    Two letters have been submitted to Bethel Patch.  The first is by First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker and is followed by another letter from Billy Michael.  

 

“Where I Stand – Old Town Hall”  By Matthew S. Knickerbocker, First Selectman

 On May 30th the Bethel Board of Selectmen made two important announcements.  First, after seven long years of fund raising, the long delayed renovation of the Bethel Public Library is ready to resume immediately.  Over $2.4 million has been raised from private donations and grants and construction contracts are in place.

 Second, the Board voted unanimously to tear down Old Town Hall to allow the project to be finished.  The entire cost of removing the building and building the parking lot will be covered by a state grant.

 This triggered a petition drive by opponents of the project who hope to force a referendum that will stop the demolition of Old Town Hall.  However, there are important facts that should be considered before signing this petition.

 The drive to stop the demolition is based on a false argument that it can be sold to private developers to generate tax revenue.  Their slogan, “Save It-Sell It-Tax It” ignores the reality that the building is economically unsellable.  The cost of renovation, code compliance and removal of lead and asbestos is several times higher than its worth.  

 Plus, like all cities, Bethel has zoning regulations that property developers must follow.  Of critical importance to the economic health of any community is insuring adequate parking to support retail activity.  Old Town Hall has no parking of its own and therefore cannot qualify for any commercial use.

 Opponents also claim the library architect “guaranteed” Old Town Hall would remain standing.  In fact, the original renovation plans always called for the building to be removed to provide adequate parking for the library.  The alternative plan putting library parking a block away was accepted only because at the time, with the teen center still in use, there was no other option.  But it was a poor idea from the start, and with the teen center now relocated, there is no longer any reason to keep the building.

 But even these reasons miss the most important point:  Selling this property would be one of the most foolish, short sighted decisions ever made by this town.  The town originally acquired this property for public use and it should remain so, now and in the future.  If sold, it would be gone for good.  No further public use could ever be made of it, whether for the library, for parking to support our downtown retailers or any other future purpose.  

 The Seelye family could have sold their property in 1914, but didn’t.  They gave it to the town for a reason.  Even though the town now owns the property and can legally do with it what it wants, violating the spirit of that selfless act today is incredibly misguided. 

 The opponents have offered no viable plan for the building.  If the petitioners are successful at stopping the demolition, Bethel will be left with an empty building for years to come.  It would also stop the library renovation, because without additional parking, it cannot move forward.  Time is up.  Grants and donations will begin expiring this summer if construction does not proceed.  By taking down this obsolete building now, we have a rare chance to unlock the potential in the land beneath the building and use it to finish the library, properly, putting its parking where people will use it.  It is truly the only fiscally responsible and forward thinking solution.

 

Billy Michael, Bethel Action Committee, has accumulated about 400 signatures on his petition. He writes:

Bethel residents opposed to the way their Board of Selectmen are disposing of the Old Town Hall should know that the Bethel Action Committee is petitioning to overrule the May 30, 2012 authorizations voted by the Board  to demolish this public building.Whether viewed as an asset or a liability, the fact remains that David Jepsen, the library project architect, assured voters at the Town Meeting on December 5, 2000 that the “Old Town Hall will remain” and that “parking as required by zoning would be provided nearby offsite.” The  Library supporters approved this plan! 


Since the basic premise of the library project is now being drastically changed it would seem only natural that Selectmen operating under town meeting form of government would want to ensure that the the assembled citizenry at town meeting agree with the substantive changes they are proposing.
However, this is not the case. By voting to authorize demolition outside of a referendum, the Selectmen are catering to the Library constituency at the expense of the taxpayers-at-large, as well as circumventing  Bethel’s Town Meeting form of government.While their actions may not be illegal, they are inconsistent with the spirit of  government based on the consent of the governed. 

First, how well-publicized was the May 30th Special Selectmen's Meeting? How many of those reading this letter were aware that demolition of the of the Old Town Hall was on the agenda? Shouldn’t an issue that generated a citizens’ rally as well as a  sharply divided Public Hearing deserve a modicum of publicity? While  meeting all 
legal requirements for notification, most were unaware of this momentous meeting!

Secondly, those who would argue against a referendum because we elect representatives to make these decisions for us  might they be reminded that the elected Board of Finance unanimously voted to preserve this building.

There is simply no consensus of support for the demolition. There is only a transparent attempt by the Selectmen to wrap the decision-making process in a protective cocoon, thus insulating them from taxpayer scrutiny.


Thirdly, how does the use of State grant money exempt this project from the oversight of the Board of Finance and the Town Meeting? Doesn’t the fact that these grant monies are derived directly from Bethel's 8000+ state income tax filers as well as other locally paid state taxes and fees in reality make this local money? What precedent is being set here?  Does receipt of State grants henceforth allow the Selectmen to do whatever they want for the benefit of a favored voting bloc, and thus free from the oversight of both the Board of Finance and the town citizenry?Fourth, is  it not reasonable that in a Town Meeting form of government, disposal of a public building should require the consent of the public? We do not give unbridled power to our neighbors at the November elections;  the founding fathers were adamant about diffusing power over the many in order to deprive excessive power to the few.The right to petition this decision to as wide an audience as possible is one of the safeguards provided by our Town Charter. To partake in this most fundamental exercise of democracy, please visit www.bethelaction.com for information on signing the petition online. We will then find you for an in-person signing of this Petition to Overrule Decision to Demolish the Old Town Hall.   Billy Michael

Bill Hillman June 19, 2012 at 05:03 PM
The building needs to come down, its 2012, not 2000, and it's in the way. The charter does not call for a vote to demolish a building, and no appropriations are needed that the BOF would have to approve. Can we just move on? It's been debated ad-nauseum!
Eric T Gray June 19, 2012 at 06:57 PM
Bill I agree with you. My only issue with this is the way Knickerbocker handled himself. Last we heard him saying was we'd have a petition and then next thing we know the building is coming down... again I'm not disagreeing with the decision but rather the way the business was handled. If Knickerbocker stated his case and said it was up to the selectmen to vote on it... fine with me. It just seems like a sneaky approach on his part.
--- June 19, 2012 at 07:37 PM
Bill and Eric, I concur with Eric on this issue, Bill. It seems to me that the crux of this matter is that months after this building comes down, we are still faced with the behavior of Mr. Knickerbocker. So let us cast aside the building as a debate topic, and focus on the flesh of the matter, which is the way this "vote" came to be in the first place. I am quite sure the building would be voted to be destroyed, definitely. But Mr. Knickerbocker will still be our First Selectman, and we should address this. Have his actions shown him to be a minor-league despot, or an elected official who has the town's best interests in mind? People need to make that decision for themselves. I know I have. I've also no intent to debate the decision to remove this old building. It's a done deal. But, as I have said, when the smoke clears and the dust settles, Mr. Knickerbocker needs to be scrutinized for his actions. Not personal. Simply business.
Bill Hillman June 19, 2012 at 08:02 PM
Eric and Don, Just keep in mind that the Charter has been followed, nothing requires either a special town meeting nor a machine vote for demolition of a town property nor use of grant funds unless 25,000 or more in town money comes into play. Perhaps some don't like that about the present charter, and those people can voice their opinions at public input when the new charter revision commission finally is convened. The charter as is leaves this decision to those we have elected. That the building has no practical value, and that it's time critical to make use of a grant for the library, isn't that why we elect people to make these decisions? At what clip level do we go from the BOS to a town meeting? The charter generally shows $25,000. I don't think even has that much market value all things considered. But... what happens if certain interests bring in enough voted in a low turnout machine vote to stop this in its tracks? We could find ourselves with a blight that just sits there, and an unfinished library for another decade. With respect, a machine vote to undo the May 30th resolutions is not really addressing a "right to vote"; something best addressed in the next charter.
--- June 19, 2012 at 08:26 PM
Bill, "Perhaps some don't like that about the present charter, and those people can voice their opinions at public input when the new charter revision commission finally is convened. " ---------------------- Well, it seems I have egg upon my face for pursuing this to begin with. If it comes down to a simple matter of a charter revision, then I will be there. Thank you for the update and the Bethel Charter lesson. There is nothing else to say, really. Cheers, Bill!
Eric T Gray June 19, 2012 at 09:00 PM
Bill, my point of contention is that our elected 1st selectman said something and then didn't follow through on it. I'm sure, being the smart man that he is, he knew exactly what he was doing... he said something to pacify a group of people, knowing that he was not going to do what he said, and he has the town charter to back him up. To me, this is not about a vote, it is not about what's in the charter... its about our 1st selectmen saying one thing and then doing another. ... based on his actions, I simply feel he was being sneaky or better said - misleading. Bring in the bulldozers and the new election year! Good day all!
Bill Hillman June 19, 2012 at 09:31 PM
Eric, I respect your opinion, and I suppose the petition and request for a vote is a type of protest. But, on the other hand, what if the vote succeeds. The unintended consequences could be expensive. Seems to me the better action is to attend BOS meetings and enter public comment, get involved with the political committees, and if you don't like the party you are in, switch, our Bethel RTC meetings are open to all republicans, but you do need to be an R to attend.
Dan Gaita June 19, 2012 at 11:37 PM
One very important thing that Mr. Knickerbocker has not disclosed. The grants and contributions are not in danger of being lost since construction can begin at any time now that the money has been raised. The parking requirement must be satisified prior to the completed library receiving a Certificate of Occupancy. This entire sequence of events is like a textbook replay of 1999-2003 when Mr. Knickerbocker, then chairman of the board of education had our parents and the community in an uproar following his false claims that: 1. BHS was on academic probation, 2. Student enrollment was going to increase by hundreds of students, 3. That the BHS gymnasium was a temporary structure, 4. That our graduating students might not get into college because of lack of NEASC accreditation. Etc etc etc. The sad part in all of this is in order to hold him accountable for lying someone has to stand him up in a trial in front of a judge and jury. Since our current charter has no enforcement mechanism and the ethcis commission only has jurisdiction over violations of section c9-3 it appears the Bethel tax payers have no other way to protect themselves outside if the painfully lengthy and expensive civil court process. And he is well aware of this. That is why he has refused to support any proposed charter enforcement mechanism that would hold him or other elected leaders accountable for misrepresentations of the truth. Oh well.
Crusader Rabbit June 20, 2012 at 07:23 PM
Once again the BAC is pushing for the town to waste money on an election that is not needed. Maybe if they had to fund the cost of the election, which I understand to be around $8,000, the BAC would be a bit more circumspect on their need for ego gratification.
johnqpublic June 20, 2012 at 07:50 PM
Crusader, they (*the BAC-ites" and the Tea-ers) really and truly believe that the decision to tear this down has to be a vote... that the select-persons have no authority to decide, and yet others (see above) hold a view that we are the great misled. So let's k.i.s.s. it vote NO do NOT overturn the BOS's decision. to heck with anyone's ego
Crusader Rabbit June 21, 2012 at 11:21 AM
John Q, Better yet if the petition to have an election fails. I wonder if the BAC-ites and Tea-ers feel there is a need for ran election to tear down an old town garage, retire a dump truck, etc. It's an asbestos laden building, not an historic landmark.
J. P. Gallagher June 23, 2012 at 03:18 PM
SPECIAL MEETING TTOWNCLERK L Monday December 21 2009 430pm CJH Municipal Center Meeting RoomA PRESENT First Selectman Knickerbocker Selectman Straiton and Selectman Szatkowski Also in attendance was Town Counsel Martin J Lawlor Consideration of Bid 0105 Teen Center Lead and Asbestos Abatement The Procurement Committee had opened and recommended awarding Bid 1O0S Teen Center Lead and Asbestos Abatement to Osscar Abatement LLC for the bid price of 06040 based on the advice of consultant Anthony Minalga of TRC and Town Engineer Andrew Morosky However discussion took place regarding the practical use of the old Town Hall building as well as the limitations of the building especially parking It was agreed that the grant particulars should be explored further to establish exactly what parameters the grant monies allow and whether the funds can be used at a different location Selectman Straiton made a motion which was seconded by First Selectman Knickerbocker to table this topic Vote all in favor motion unanimously approved
--- June 23, 2012 at 05:01 PM
Crusader, You brought up an interesting point, and one I had overlooked. This old town hall does have asbestos in it. This is fact. Yet it had been used, (and recently at that), as a teen center. So we had kids inside a death trap. What will Bethel do when and if these kids and/or their parents want financial restitution for developing an asbestos-related illness? It's not as if just yesterday it was discovered this building had asbestos, yet it was freely used by kids and other citizens of Bethel. Hmm.

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