Closed Doors on Town Offices

By Guest Contributor

While students have been away for the summer, the citizens of Middlebury have been debating the merits of a College Town plan to move the town offices to the site of the Osborne House (77 Main Street, adjacent to the Ilsley Library). Opponents of the plan have criticized it for the lack of parking, the proposed conveyance of the current site of the Municipal Building, and, among other reasons, the process that the Middlebury Board of Selectmen chose to follow.

It is ironic that some people compare the open door process that led to the siting of the Cross Street Bridge with the closed-door process that resulted in the current plan to site the town offices on the Osborne House lot. One would do just as well to compare night and day.

In 2004, local resident Arch Tilford appeared before the Board of Selectmen and proposed that the town rebuild the Three Mile Bridge (located 3 miles from the center of town) which was destroyed by a fire in the early 1950’s, and thus relieve the notorious traffic congestion that plagued downtown Middlebury. The Board took his plea to heart. Recognizing that all good public works projects require planning and foresight, Chairperson John Tenny quickly formed a committee charged with determining the best site for a new bridge.

In the ensuing months, the Bridge Committee held numerous open door committee meetings, as well as public presentations and forums – all of which provided an opportunity for public comment. The Committee diligently sought information and advice from traffic engineering experts and others. Additionally, the Committee reported to the Board on a bi-monthly basis, each report affording yet another opportunity for public input. In October 2005, after examining the evidence, weighing public sentiment and researching the pros and cons of no less than six potential sites, the Committee recommended that a bridge should be constructed between Cross Street and Main Street. I was at many of those meetings, presentations, and forums, but, contrary to what some may say, I didn’t hear any “whining and moaning.” Instead, I heard citizens expressing their opinions in a respectful and thoughtful manner, just as we all should do. The public had ample opportunity to express their views before my colleagues on the Board and I unanimously endorsed the Cross Street Bridge concept.

I admit that initially I questioned the wisdom of the Cross Street site; others, including Middlebury College President Ronald D. Liebowitz, had concerns about the location as well. “’I know there were people quite dubious about the location, and I was one of those, to be honest,’ Liebowitz said.” Nevertheless, on Oct. 20, 2011, the Addison Independent ran a story  with the headline, “One year later: Cross Street Bridge drawing good reviews.”

Most of those skeptics, President Liebowitz and myself included, were won over. It is likely that many were convinced, as I was, by the extensive research that formed the foundation of the Committee’s recommendation; others may have been influenced by the overwhelming public support evidenced by a 2007 Town Meeting Day vote of 695-203, which endorsed that concept.

Contrast the above with the closed-door process that led to the current proposal to move the town offices to the Osborne House site.

On April 5 this year, before consulting with the entire Board, members Dean George and Victor Nuovo approached college officials in private and asked if the College would be interested in participating in a town office project.  At that luncheon meeting, college officials assured my colleagues that a proposal would be forthcoming.  When later presented to the Board, the College’s proposal was much the same as was revealed to the public on June 11 of this year, a scant five weeks after the initial request.  There was no opportunity for the public to express their concerns before the College proposed and a majority of the Board endorsed the Osborne House site as the location for our new town offices.

In addition to a lack of parking and the numerous other faults in the plan, which I have written about extensively elsewhere, this deeply flawed process is another compelling reason why the voters would be right to reject the Osborne House plan.

All citizens must have an opportunity to express their views before a public body makes a decision on a public project, especially when that decision is as significant as the location of our town offices for present and future generations.

CRAIG BINGHAM is a Middlebury Selectman