How to avoid appearance of ‘undo influence?’

Rockport leader pushes for consistent public process as library project continues

Posted:  Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - 1:00pm
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ROCKPORT — A frank interchange among three members of the Rockport Select Board at a March 13 meeting regarding public process and the town’s library construction project resulted in an acknowledgment that the process matters more than the outcome.

There were only three members of the board present at the regularly scheduled meeting, and the conversation about the library project and its next steps followed further down in the agenda, but not before one citizen, Ames Curtis, stood up during the public comment period and said: “The Select Board had promised a fair, balanced and impartial process in the decision-making of the siting of a new library. The process was anything but impartial and was not an adequate comparison. I’m hoping the citizens of Rockport will remember that at the ballot box.”

The siting of a new library, either at 1 Limerock Street, which is is current location, and the former Rockport Elementary School lot on West Street, has been a town-wide debate for four years, with divided opinion emerging at town meetings and the ballot box.

Most recently, the Select Board heard a proposal from three citizens, who offered to raise money so that the town could purchase the house and land at 3 Limerock Street, next door to the existing library, for the purpose of enlarging the available footprint for the library project.

But on March 6, the group of Rockport residents abruptly cancelled a scheduled March 7 meeting with the Select Board. That meeting was to incorporate public comment, followed by a discussion and decision about the offer.

“We see no purpose for the scheduled March 7 meeting and request that it be cancelled,” wrote Nick Ruffin, Sally Cook and Alex Armentrout, in an email to Rockport Select Board Chairman Bill Chapman, on March 6.

“Our push for the June ballot was to have the Select Board’s approval of a site and building design before buying the 3 Limerock property,” they wrote. “We cannot begin to raise funds for such a purchase without a plan that gives indication of the use of the combined land and the appearance of the new library building.

“Moreover, at this point, any further active pursuit of the 3 Limerock property (fundraising, publicity, etc.) could only inflame the local conflict that has surfaced around it, and could interfere with enthusiasm and fundraising for the library project which will now be developed to appear on the ballot in November.

“At this time we are not terminating our Option To Purchase with the Scotts, but would like more time to look ahead, to see what develops, and to consider other possibilities.”

Subsequent to that cancellation with the Select Board, the board itself called off the public meeting.

One Select Board member, Brendan Riordan, took issue with that cancellation.

He wrote to his colleagues on the Select Board, as well as the town manager, and addressed Select Board Chairman Bill Chapman in a March 7 email.

“I received the memo at the same time I received a notification that the meeting was cancelled,” he wrote. “As I read the agenda, the meeting was scheduled for multiple reasons. One of those reasons was to receive public comment. As I read Sally’s note, I find that she and Nick have not abandoned or withdrawn their option to purchase. They offered an assessment that a public conversation at this time would do more harm than good.

“They also made a request that a public meeting be cancelled.

“It looks to me like a letter of request signed by three citizens resulted in the cancellation of a scheduled public meeting. How can one interpret that as anything other than undue influence?

“If any other three members of the public had offered the assessment that a scheduled public meeting would do more harm than good, would you have cancelled it?

“Did the public need for those three individuals to be present in order to conduct and participate in a public discussion?”

“What am I missing?”

 

March 13 board conversation

Riordan reiterated his questions to Chapman and Select Board member Ken McKinley at their March 13 meeting. (Click here to watch that portion of the meeting.) Members Owen Casas and Geoff Parker were not at the meeting.

“I think, again, the issue of process is at the center of this,” said Riordan, when the agenda landed on the library topic. He spoke after McKinley said that he was not in favor of placing a warrant article about the library before voters at June Town Meeting, citing lack of time for adequate decision-making.

“I wrote you both letters asking to hear how and why a recent meeting about the library was cancelled,” said Riordan. “I think part of what is the center of the contention about the library is the perception that there are individuals or groups who have an outsized ability to influence the process.”

He said that a meeting that was scheduled in order to hear from the public about a proposal that was put in front of board had been unjustifiably cancelled by the board.

“I received a letter from the three individuals who put forth that proposal, in which they they made an observation about the timber of the conversation, that they felt further public discussion would not be helpful at this time, and they made a request to cancel the meeting,” he said. “About 30 minutes after I received that letter the meeting had been cancelled.”

Riordan continued: “I think part of the fulcrum here is the perception that the proposal about the Scott property had been withdrawn. But when I read letter, I find it hasn’t been withdrawn. Independent of whether we share the assessment that public comment would be unhelpful, and going back to process, it still troubles me that the meeting was cancelled at the request of three individuals.”

Chapman responded to Riordan that the meeting was to hear details of the Scott property proposal.

“It was the three individuals that we were meeting with to hear about details as they would affect the vote that would go to citizens in June,” said Chapman.

Riordan said, “It is the process not the outcome that bothers me.”

Chapman replied, “Your point is noted.”

Later in the conversation, he said: “I cancelled because they weren’t going to appear. I take ownership for that.”

McKinley said: “From what I understood, they were pulling it back for the short time. They wanted to see where we were going to go.”

Riordan then suggested a meeting be held with the public about the Scott property proposal.

“I think we adopted one big parking problem,” he said. “I’d like to hear from the public about ways they feel are acceptable to resolve parking problem.”

McKinely responded: “We have to address parking problem and have to be willing to give up part of the park.”

He then noted Riordan’s concern about public process and said: “Process is important, and we have to be careful about it going forward. We’ve got to move forward with looking at 1 limerock Street irrespective of 3 Limerock Street. We have to take the June ballot question off table.”

The three members then agreed to schedule a workshop about library next steps, and whether to put a library proposal on the November ballot. But they also agreed to ensure all five select board members are present at such a vote.

“I wouldn’t want to do this with three of five of us here,” said Riordan. “A decision of this magnitude should not happen with three of us present.”

McKinley ended the library conversation and told Riordan, “I admire your sense of process. It is commendable.”

 

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