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Bethel Ousts Chairman

Bethel — The turnover in this town’s leadership continued yesterday as a packed Town Meeting turned out an incumbent selectman for the second year in a row.

Yesterday’s turnout of 305 voters was the highest in recent memory, and most were there to vote for Carl Russell, a forester and farmer with a long family history in Bethel. He defeated Selectboard Chairman Neal Fox, a four-term incumbent, by a vote of 170-116.

Bethel’s Selectboard came under fire after Tropical Storm Irene, when town officials were accused of ministering to the devastated infrastructure but offering little support to residents who needed the basics after losing their homes. Town leaders also evicted a corps of volunteers from the Town Hall in the weeks after the August 2011 storm.

“I believe Neal Fox and I have very different views on leadership and community building,” Russell said. No doubt there are businesslike aspects of town administration, he said in asking townspeople for support. But, he added, “we are much bigger than that. We are a community.”

After reading the results from the paper ballot, Moderator Eric Benson told the assembly, “You’ve elected Carl Russell,” words that sparked a round of applause. Benson suggested the meeting recognize Fox’s contribution to the town, which led to a long standing ovation.

Fox, a retired Army colonel who also owned several insurance agencies in Vermont, said he planned to remain involved in Bethel. He is president of White River Valley Ambulance and has served on the Selectboard for 12 years.

“You win some, you lose some,” Fox said after the meeting.

Russell said his interest in town government did not stem from the weeks after Irene, but from his time on the Conservation Commission in the 1980s. Voters didn’t quite see it that way.

“The decisions were made on a visceral level,” said Davis Dimock. “I think it was just a changing of the guard, move on with the next generation.”

Russell’s victory was a sign that people want to be more involved in town business, said Dimock, who also upbraided the Selectboard at the end of the meeting for a paragraph in the board’s report that took its critics to task. William Hall, who was elected over an incumbent last year, declined to endorse the report.

Town Meeting was less rancorous than the previous year’s, when voters declined to adjourn the meeting so they could share their raw feelings with the Selectboard. But it was much better attended.

The meeting was scheduled to start at 10 a.m., but at that hour a line of voters snaked down the stairs, out to the sidewalk and around the corner of Town Hall. The meeting got under way at around 10:35, with little more than 21 percent of the town’s 1,419 voters crammed into the hall.

“This is what we want to see,” said Cindy Metcalf, former chairwoman of the Vermont Democratic Party, said to her husband, state Sen. Dick McCormack.

Also yesterday, voters approved town and school budgets, the latter in an evening meeting that lasted little more than 15 minutes and featured no discussion.

Town spending is expected to remain roughly level, at around $1.5 million, and the town tax rate should remain flat, officials said. Voters spent little time discussing the town budget, but added $800 to fund the Arts Bus, a summer arts program for children.

The school budget, of a little more than $5 million, is 8.5 percent higher than the current year’s, thanks almost entirely to raises for teachers and the principal of Bethel’s K-12 school. Teachers have been working without a contract since July and negotiations over how to distribute the wage increases have been at an impasse since October.

The spending increase is offset by higher revenue, including from tuition students. The residential school tax rate is expected to increase by 3 cents per $100 of assessed value, which would lead to a tax increase of $60 on a $200,000 home.

“I think it was a reasonable budget,” School Board Chairwoman Kristin LaFromboise said after last night’s brief school district meeting.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.

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