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Referendum Date For the Future of Old Town Hall Now Set

Finally, the decision of what to do with Old Town Hall will be put to rest.

 

 

In a new Letter to the Editor, sent this morning, the First Selectman, Matthew Knickerbocker, outlined his reasons why he felt Phillip Gallagher’s Letter to the Editor was an unsound argument.  That letter follows this announcement.

Billy Michael, of the Bethel Action Committee, contacted Patch this morning to announce that the petition to require a referendum had received the requisite 546 signatures, representing five percent of Bethel voters. The signatures were qualified by Town Clerk Lisa Bergh.

“According to charter, we had 30 days to bring in a petition of five percent of the voters to overrule the selectman.  Now they have seven to 14 days to schedule a referendum,” Michaels said.  

At noon today, the Board of Selectmen met to decide the date for the referendum, which  will be Tuesday, July 17.  Polls will be open from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m.

The referendum will put an end to a more than ten year discussion, which originally surfaced when the original plan to expand the library was conceived.  

Ten years ago, before it was established that the building was unsuitable for use due to asbestos and lead, it was being used as the town’s  Teen Center.   The architects at that time came up with a new parking plan that was approved by Planning and Zoning, that enabled the Teen Center to continue.  The library parking was expected to be more than a block away at the Municipal Center, by removing the lawn on the right side of the Municipal Center building.  

However, according to Knickerbocker, “That was a lousy solution but the only alternative.”  

Since then, changes have occurred that Knickerbocker said makes that possibility impossible. In 2010, the Municipal Center was established as the Probate Court for the region, which includes Bethel, Newtown, Ridgefield and Redding.  Knickerbocker said this has increased the need for parking at the Municipal Center.  

The town has also placed an enormous generator, that ran the shelter during the power outages caused by last year’s storms, where the parking exit would have had to be.  “So parking at the Municipal Center is no longer a viable option,” Knickerbocker said. 

After the Old Town Hall was closed for safety reasons, Knickerbocker said the building is now uneconomical to renovate and there is still no parking, “so the whole scenario has changed.”

“The town has no further use of the building. Teens aren’t using it, developers can’t renovate it, there is no parking for the building.  We re-evaluated, and there is really no longer any reason not to put the library parking at the library,” he said. 

 

 

Knickerbocker wrote the following before office hours, from his personal email address: 

 

Dear Editor:

J. Phillip Gallagher’s “where-there’s-a-will-there’s-a-way” editorial is a fantasy filled with almost impossible “what if’s”.  His list of former town properties all have one thing in common:  Parking; a code requirement Old Town Hall does not and can never have, and that is the one element that made it possible to sell them.

But again he ignores the most important point:  The Seelye property was donated to the town for the benefit of all Bethel citizens and it should remain so, now and for the future.  

If we follow the logic that any given piece of taxpayer-owned property should be sold for the sake of tax revenue, imagine the possibilities if we sold off Parloa, Meckaurer and Bennett Park properties for housing developments.  

Obviously, this is absurd.  These properties exist to benefit the public, and the lot under Old Town Hall is no exception.  Bethel voters have an opportunity to improve our business district as well as complete the library renovation at no cost to taxpayers.

That is a critical point.  Some backers of the petition drive said they never wanted a bigger library to begin with.  Yet they fail to recognize their tax dollars were spent years ago building the part that now sit empty.  If it’s not completed, that money will have been wasted.

Bethel residents must clearly understand that a vote to overturn the Board of Selectmen will stop the library renovation and an unusable building with hazardous materials will remain standing, empty, for years to come.  Razing Old Town Hall will result in immediate completion of the library and an opportunity for a healthier and more successful retail district along Greenwood Avenue.

Let’s move ahead.  I urge all Bethel residents to VOTE NO on the upcoming referendum. 

 

Matthew S. Knickerbocker, First Selectman

 

 

Dan Gaita July 05, 2012 at 05:15 PM
Mr. Knickerbocker, Several years ago while you served as Board of Education Chairman you informed the town of Bethel that in 1998 the New England Association of Schools and Colleges placed BHS on academic probation - you said this in town meetings, in letters sent home to families and on TV with our former State Representative - Yet your deposed testimony being used in the July 31st trial shows that that information was false. - You also falsely claimed the First Selectman cut teachers jobs in that same TV interview. In 2003 while chairman of the Bethel BOE you made the following statements that the same deposition testimony clearly show were false: 1. BHS has hundreds of more students coming in the upcoming classes 2. The BHS gymnasium was built to be a temporary structure 3. Student would be unable to get into college if our schools were not NEASC accredited Since being elected as First Selectman you falsely stated the: 1. State Law requires pensions be funded at 80% - yet no such law exists. Since being elected as First Selectman you claimed our long term debt would drop given your road renewal bonding proposal. - Has it dropped? 2. you claimed that the $3,000,000 in "transfers" from the towns cash reserve general fund would be replaced in five years. That was two years ago, what is the balance due now?
Dan Gaita July 05, 2012 at 05:16 PM
Witness deposition testimony to be used in the July 31st trial also alleges that you repeatedly misinformed members of the Board of Finance, that you attempted to make changes to the budget after BOF approval and prior to a town vote, that you have violated Town Charter, and State Statutes. This is just a brief list. The entirety of which will come out in trial very soon. Given this – How can any of us believe your masterfully written explanation, justification and intentions for the Library completion and Old Town Hall demolition? Perhaps you could provide for us the sources you’ve relied upon to come to your conclusions (Specific P&Z and charter sections, original language of land use when property was donated i.e. actual document) Also, the building can not be purchased until a request for proposal or a public announcement is posted. Since you have not yet done this, the town has never actually attempted to find a buyer.
Dan Gaita July 05, 2012 at 05:16 PM
More directly to the point, is the actual completion of the Library. Mr. Knickerbocker you have claimed that delaying the demolition of the old town hall could jeopardize our grants and donations that we have all worked hard as a community to raise. However, the library completion is not being delayed by the old town hall is it sir? In fact, construction can begin right now if you stop using the library and the funds as a leveraging tool to demolish the old town hall. Isn’t that correct sir? The Old Town Hall only effects the post construction completion C/O for the completed Library – it has no bearing on when and if construction can begin does it sir? You, Mr. Knickerbocker are the one delaying the project from moving forward. And for the record, I support the completion of the Library and support the expansion of available parking in Bethel for economic growth. What I don’t support and will not tolerate is leadership that misleads the public. Jury selection starts July 31st: http://civilinquiry.jud.ct.gov/CaseDetail/PublicCaseDetail.aspx?DocketNo=DBDCV095008537S
J. Rick July 05, 2012 at 05:35 PM
Right now I am playing catch-up on this issue. Since it has been a debate ever since town offices moved out of the building I sort of got tired of the subject. I certainly cn see both sides of this issue and even a possible third side. With that said, has anyone published the cost to tear down the old town hall? I would imagine so and I may have missed that installment of this mini-drama series. Personally I would guess that it will all come dowwn to how much will it cost the tax payers of Bethel to either tear down the building or renovate. I am sure a lot of folks are going to throw stones at me on this one, but for how many more years will our library be an asset to the town? All across New England library are closing due to either the ebook and internet, program cuts, and high overhead. So I guess all that I am really asking is what are the costs to us, the taxpayers for either option.
--- July 05, 2012 at 06:40 PM
:)
johnqpublic July 05, 2012 at 06:40 PM
CHA-CHING! $8000 for this waste of time for a vote not required by the charter, along with other three year old news. Vote NO.
Dan Gaita July 05, 2012 at 06:56 PM
I agree, Too bad Mr. Knickerbocker didn't keep his promise and let the voters decide during the budget referendum. He could have added the question to that ballot and saved everyone the time and resources it took to conduct the petition, count the names, certify the effort and now the added referendum vote. If only he kept his promises.
--- July 05, 2012 at 07:03 PM
@Daniel, No, no, no...you cannot blame or point any fingers at Mr. Knickerbocker. It is not yours to express such opinions, Daniel. You need to remain silent and just accept your leaders and their authority. This all needs to fall upon that horrible Bill Michael and his constant whining and petitioning and trying to stop all forward progress of Bethel. He is obviously the villain in this soap opera. How dare he seek to challenge our duly elected First Selectman. Doesn't Billy Michael know his place and station as a taxpayer? ---------- So now we will have a vote. It's about time. Yea or Nay, the people of Bethel will finally be heard.
Eric T Gray July 05, 2012 at 07:24 PM
I hope Mr Knickerbocker is preparing for his trial before office hours and using his own personal computer while doing so... Call me crazy... but who approved where the huge generator would go? Didn't they validate whether or not it was a good place to put it? Holy cow what a cluster... my parents used the term '1/2 a$$ed job' when I did my chores poorly... I think I'd use the same term to describe this total debacle. I'll vote tear it down, but I honestly couldn't be happier to see our town leader brought to task for this and forcing a referendum as he originally said there would be... and to Daniel's point, it wouldn't have cost a dime.
Paul Improta July 05, 2012 at 08:52 PM
That would be Bob Burke. Surely you read his most recent campaign literature where after the October snow storm he was taking credit for the grant Phyllis Kansky applied for to the DOHS to acquire the generator? Also, the charter wasn't violated. The BOS wasn't required to put it to a referendum. A referendum wasn't necessary, therefore it wasn't anticipated. I have a lot of differences with Mr. Knickerbocker, but in this particular case I have to agree with him, and the unanimous vote of the Board of Selectmen, as well as the near unanimous vote of the P&Z to raze the building.
Bob B July 05, 2012 at 08:55 PM
J - it's my understanding that the state of CT has offered a grant to tear down the Old Town Hall building - so there would be no cost to town residents...other than the $8000 for the referendum we're now going to pay.
Bill Hillman July 06, 2012 at 12:22 PM
Since this referendum is solely to overturn particular resolutions of the BOS that was made on May 30th, and nothing else; it's NOT a referendum to tear down or not tear down the OTH, It seems the BOS could continue the process that was started in several ways (including a new resolution or STM to continue) regardless of how the referendum turns out. I'll be voting NO, but the process to demolish will continue, and those folks backing this will have simply thrown out $8000 or $10000 of town money for a moot referendum. Moot! What a waste. The Charter Revision Commission (I'm one of 7 on that) needs to raise the bar to 10% for causing a machine vote. If no one else brings that up, I will.
Karl July 06, 2012 at 02:13 PM
A few thoughts on the old town hall: A referendum is the right thing to do, but this is the wrong building to use as an example. It's like trying to petition to enter a warthog in a "prettiest dog" contest. The referendum should have been on the ballot with the budget referendum. Adding it would have cost less than the $8K or so a separate referendum would have cost. The voting machines have to be programmed and tested for each question, so it wouldn't have been free. Matt Knickerbocker says that parking is the one element that made it possible to sell formerly town owned properties. I disagree. Parking is only one aspect, location, suitability for the intended use, and condition of the building are just some of the factors. The only thing the old town hall has going for it is location. Its condition is decaying, with hazardous waste that has to be mitigated. I've heard that the internal walls are cement block, and are load bearing. This means that if a buyer wants to change the layout they will have to make a major effort to do so.
Karl July 06, 2012 at 02:15 PM
One poster said that libraries are challenged by the Internet and ebooks. Yet the attendance at the Bethel Library is said to be growing. Perhaps the programs for pre-school and elementary school children are the reason. Bethel has a teen center, should we have activities for younger children also? If the second floor of the Library is given the proper facilities, the Youth Commission may be able to host events for younger children there.
Karl July 06, 2012 at 02:16 PM
Bill, please also add disposal or demolition of items over a given amount to the things that need an automatic referendum.
Bill Hillman July 06, 2012 at 02:51 PM
Karl: The Charter requires a special town meeting for sale or purchase of a property, NOT a machine referendum, unless the cost exceeds $1 million. The demolition of a building ought not exceed the approval requirements for sale or purchase. Please bring your concerns to the Charter Commission in public comments once the charge has been given to that commission and meetings set. This Blog isn't really the place for that discussion.
Bill Hillman July 07, 2012 at 03:26 AM
Actually it might have cost a bunch regardless, as we had a bond issue along with the budget, they had to rent the chips needed for that many spaces on the scan form. An additional question would have required a different programmable chip which could have added $3600 or more to that vote (they were able to locate a rental set (they need 12 of them) cheap, may not have been lucky with a 10 spot form. Besides, the charter does not require a vote for this, but the fact is, it would not have been cost free, and it would have cost a lot of dimes!

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