Voters Said: Old Town Hall Is Coming Down!

Voters made their position known with a solid three to one margin.


Tuesday's referendum was the end of a decade long discussion on whether or not to save the Old Town Hall. The 1680 to 535 vote overwhelmingly supported the Board of Selectmen’s decision to take down the building by a 3 to 1 margin.  Town Clerk Lisa Bergh said, “This was a huge message!”

Billy Michael, chairman of the Bethel Action Committee, said that while he was disappointed in the outcome of the vote, he was pleased that no government money was used to contact one group over another, at the tax payer’s expense.  “I was shocked at the margin of passage, and disappointed with turnout. But I was ecstatic that the All or None was adhered to perfectly,” he said.

when residents voted that no special interest groups that received funding from town government could use emails or other forms of solicitation to urge voters to support their own agenda.

Whether it was due to that meeting or not, as debated by First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker, postcard alerts were sent to every home, which ensured that all town residents were aware of Tuesday’s referendum.

The referendum itself was the result of a petition drive by the Bethel Action Committee led by Michael, who was able to acquire the necessary five percent of votes necessary to force a referendum.  Bill Hillman, Bethel resident who is currently on the Charter Revision Committee, said that in his opinion, the number needs to be raised to 10 percent.

 “In order to override the Board of Selectmen or a Town Meeting, the number should be higher.  Other towns have a higher bar than five percent,” Hillman said.

All of the selectmen were present at the polls when the numbers were announced.  “I am just so grateful for the support of the voters,”  First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker said.  

Another of the town’s Board of Selectmen, Paul Szatkowski, said, “This proves the Board of Selectmen read the public correctly. We knew all along the residents wanted to take the building down.  We wasted $8,000 of town money.  It wasn’t necessary.”

The central debate of whether or not to keep the Old Town Hall building was based on a need for library parking versus renovating the building to sell with the possiblility of the town receiving a tax benefit. The BOS insisted the building was worthless, and the voters appeared to agree.

“The voice of the people has been heard,” said Kitty Grant, from the Planning and Zoning Commission.  “They voted overwhelmingly to take the building down.” 

Registrar of Voters Deputy Joan Reynolds, who had been sitting in the gymnasium of the Municipal Center since 5:30 a.m., said that she was impressed with the turnout, especially on a day of nearly 100 degree weather.  “There is nothing worse than apathy,” she said. “And none was seen at the polls today.”

Keith Watson July 18, 2012 at 02:37 AM
Is there a petition I can sign to make Phil Gallagher and the Bethel Action Committee repay the taxpayers of Bethel the $8,000 plus for this referendum?
Karen farley July 18, 2012 at 03:03 AM
To those who signed the BAC petition, did you vote today?
Tubeworm July 18, 2012 at 03:29 AM
Wow! Finally! Welcome completed library and more sewage capacity (future development?!!), bye bye broken top windows and aspestos! When should the demolition start?!?
Bill Hillman July 18, 2012 at 03:31 AM
@Keith, It's done, let's move on. The petition was allowed by the present charter. The bar needs to be raised from 5% to 10%, which could mean a determined group could force a referendum at that level. But if 1100 voters felt that strongly, we should not complain about people exercising their rights under the law.
Keith Watson July 18, 2012 at 03:50 AM
@Bill, I agree that moving forward on is the best course of action. However I do question the motive and reason of the Chairman of the Board Finance ie Phil Gallagher, to push this to a referendum and plunder tax payers dollars on this referendum. Is he not supposed to be an advocate of the town and not use his position to waste taxpayer dollars that he was elected to oversee?
SmallMinds July 18, 2012 at 10:48 AM
People do not sign petitions because they 'feel that strongly' about an issue. As you can see, fewer people got off their couches to vote "YES' than signed the petition. People sign because someones asks them to, it doesn't cost them anything (they think), it is presented to them wherever they happen to be and they can be nice and 'give something' to someone. People sign to be nice and they think it's harmless. Democracy is good, right? Petitioning the government is a right enshrined in the Constitution, right? This was a big waste of time and money. That stupid Town Hall meeting is a big waste of time and a ridiculous circus. The people at that meeting should not have the power to kill a budget. Sending the Board of Ed budget to the Bd of Finance to mess with is a waste of time. It made sense when the budget consisted of components prepared by employees and appointees of the town. The Board of Ed budget is presented to the voters by elected officials and can go straight to the voters for our approval. We don't need the other elected officials to get in the way of us exercising our prerogatives. It's just another opportunity for more arguments. It seems that the town government is engineered to keep people fighting on a daily basis rather than electing officials and letting them do their jobs while I go to work and do mine; earning a living. Setting the requirement at 10% is an excellent idea. Also, sending the Bd of Ed budget to voters directly.
Gabrielle Reynolds July 18, 2012 at 01:04 PM
I'll sign it!
greg j. July 18, 2012 at 01:15 PM
I'm with you Keith. It was a big waste of our tax money. How long will people continue to listen to the "Little boy who cried wolf". It has gotten to the point that Mr. Michaels and the B.A.C. are not worth listening to.
Francesco A.A. Mastracchio July 18, 2012 at 02:25 PM
Okay...so in the end, the public supported the decision of the selectmen who did what we elected them to do...we all got inconvenienced because we had to redundently redecide that which was lawfully decided and it cost the town about $8,000 to run the referendum as was reported. Democracy at it's finest.
andi July 18, 2012 at 02:48 PM
Keith- I don't see why you would make such a statement. I wish to state that I support our First Selectman and the BOS. I volunteered for FS the first year he ran and one and have signs on my property supporting him everytime he runs. I also don't know the whole story here but the message I got on my phone was the lack of a town meeting on the matter and if that is true then we have a lesson to learn here-- BUT even if it is not true-- why would you want to deny true democracy to any group?
andi July 18, 2012 at 02:52 PM
Wish I had looked at my spelling of won (one) before I posted-- that being stated-- what is up with this issue of silencing someone simply because you do not agree with them and if a vote is a means to obtain true democracy why would you oppose it?
--- July 18, 2012 at 03:59 PM
@SmallMInds, You said: "As you can see, fewer people got off their couches to vote "YES' than signed the petition." Point of order- this petition was not about telling people to vote Yes or No. This petition was about allowing the public to vote on the OTH issue. Do not confuse the two. The people of Bethel, the voters who voted I should say, have had their voices heard. That's what the petition was about. Mr. Hillman has a good idea in revising the Town Charter to 10% instead of 5%.
--- July 18, 2012 at 04:01 PM
@andi, Interesting questions. I wonder who will answer.
Paul Improta July 18, 2012 at 04:21 PM
Less turnout to vote "yes" than signed the petition. Gallagher isn't the chairman of the BOF, that would be Bill Kingston. You might recall that under the previous BOF when Gallagher was the chairmen, by a majority of the BOF they voted on a resolution to sell the Old Town Hall. Obviously the resolution was non-binding and over-reaching the BOF's authority. Mr. Gallagher was obviously passionate about his side of the argument. The question was put to a vote. In the end the right decision was made for the betterment of the downtown, aesthetically as well as functionally. When is the 90 day contestability period up? With the library, let's get this "shovel-ready" project completed ASAP before something else could go wrong.
Bill Hillman July 18, 2012 at 05:49 PM
@andi, Keep in mind, the present charter was approved by a machine vote and specifically omitted the need for approving demolition of a property at a special town meeting. In fact, purchase or sale of a property ONLY requires a special town meeting and NOT a machine vote at all (unless the value exceeds $1 million). We, the people, empowered the BOS to make the decision they made by approving the last Charter. Maybe demolition, like sale or purchase should be subject to a special town meeting as well. Right now, it's not. The present charter also allows for a 10% of voter petition to overrule a decision of a Special Town meeting, and the legislative authority is vested in both the BOS and the Town meeting. Raising to 10% for overrule of the BOS simply brings that in sync with other parts of the existing charter and creates a standard threshold for overrule of a legislative body by machine vote. So it's not about squelching anyone, but bringing consistency and balance between authority given to elected officials and a sufficiently high but fair bar to reach before running an expensive machine vote. We do need to enable our elected leaders to do what they are elected for, and not use expensive machine votes to micromanage. I think Billy and Phil misjudged the strength of the NO vote. But they did provide ample motive to cause review of the petition to overrule process.
Peter Samardak July 18, 2012 at 07:51 PM
Bottom line, the people have chosen. Everyone had the opportunity to chose. Lets move on.
justme July 19, 2012 at 06:49 PM
It's over and all the people who voted to overturn need to let it go. Stop crying and lets start working. And whoever filed the objection to slow the process down needs to grow up. It's history, it's over, it's done.
Mary Ann Kulla July 20, 2012 at 04:46 PM
I think $8,000 is a small price to pay for free speech. There were obviously people who questioned the decision to tear down a building that could be repaired and rented. The current town budget is in excess of $50,000,000, so $8k is 0.00016% of that! Big deal.
Bill Hillman July 20, 2012 at 05:37 PM
@Mary, They could have petitioned for a special town meeting to review this, and not cost 8000, which was a total waste. Same 5% requirement. In fact, buying or selling a property, according to the charter, does NOT require a machine vote, only a special town meeting. We had voted, by machine, when the current charter was approved NOT to include demolition of a property as one of those things needing either a vote or a town meeting. we already decided with that vote to delegate that authority to the BOS. The petitioners took the most expensive option, and I'm told got some 600 signatures or so after 2000 door knocking attempts... about the same 3 to 1 hit rate as the NO vote. So let me ask, can we use the funds that were earmarked for meals on wheels to pay for this vote? Should be no big deal as you suggest. and no, if you read the information, the building could not have been repaired, rented or otherwise used in any economic way and get a c of o.
Crusader Rabbit July 20, 2012 at 06:38 PM
When were they worth listening to?


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