Jim Kenyon: Scaling the Hartford Selectboard’s stonewall

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 5/2/2020 9:46:05 PM
Modified: 5/2/2020 9:46:03 PM

In recent years, the Hartford Selectboard has taken on more of a leftist bent — for the betterment of the town.

Newer board members have ushered in a much-needed “welcoming” ordinance, which prohibits Hartford police from sharing a person’s citizenship with U.S. immigration authorities. It also forbids cops from stopping or arresting people based on their suspected immigration status.

Simon Dennis, the board’s current vice chairman, helped champion the ordinance, which Hartford voters supported at Town Meeting in March. Since his election in 2012, Dennis has also advocated for expanding social services to homeless people and urged the town to do more to combat the effects of climate change.

But Dennis suffers from a malady that is all too common among the progressive set. He’s happy to talk with the media when it serves his needs. His support for a free and robust press seems to end, however, when he feels it no longer benefits his political agenda.

Case in point: On April 20, Valley News reporter Anna Merriman, who often covers Hartford, reached out to Dennis and a few other board members, seeking comment on a recent development with the welcoming ordinance.

Robert Manby, the town’s attorney, had drafted a letter, signed by Town Manager Brannon Godfrey, to several federal agencies, asking whether the ordinance jeopardizes Hartford’s chances of securing future grants. For starters, the town is looking for federal money to help with replacing the roof at the Bugbee Senior Center.

The debate centers on whether the new ordinance appears to conflict with a federal law that says communities must share immigration information with federal authorities.

Not surprisingly, opponents of the ordinance assert it does, and supporters disagree — but that’s a topic for another time.

In any case, the federal funding issue — and its potential impact on Hartford taxpayers — is newsworthy. By reaching out to board members before their April 21 meeting, Merriman was doing her job.

Apparently, Dennis didn’t see it that way. After receiving Merriman’s inquiry, he dashed off an email to his six colleagues on the board and to Godfrey.

“I am not going to give any information,” Dennis wrote. “The less the story she can put together, the better.”

Although Dennis hasn’t elaborated publicly, I think it’s pretty clear what he was up to. Residents voted on the ordinance only after a heated public debate. The board adopted it soon after and it takes effect later this month.

Now that the ordinance is almost here, Dennis seems to prefer the issues surrounding it slip quietly into the background.

While Dennis might believe no news is good news, it’s not good government.

The email was Dennis’ attempt to influence his colleagues outside a public meeting. He wasn’t talking with the press, and he didn’t want them to, either. (Merriman obtained the email through a public records request.)

As the board’s longest-serving member and former chairman, Dennis carries a lot of sway.

At the board’s next meeting on April 21, Dennis Brown, who I think it’s fair to say is the last of the town’s old guard on the board, was the only one to question the appropriateness of Dennis’ email.

I don’t agree with Brown on much, but he was spot-on in calling out Dennis for attempting to tamp down public discussion about the ordinance. (The next closest thing to a rebuke came from board member Kim Souza, who said she felt “uncomfortable” about the email’s wording.)

The email was “perfectly fine,” Dennis said in his brief remarks after Brown raised it. “I stand by it 100%.” (I wanted to hear more from Dennis, but he didn’t respond to my email last week.)

Alicia Barrow, who was elected to the board in March, agreed with Dennis that keeping the ordinance out of the news was a good strategy.

“We are working with such a sensitive subject,” she said. “There’s no need to cause alarm on things that people are not properly educated on until we can find a way to properly educate people on it.”

When we exchanged emails last week, Barrow told me that “not everyone has taken the time or had the opportunity to understand” the ordinance’s complexities. To avoid alarm and panic in the community, the board “must make sure we are diligent in giving all the correct information,” she added.

One way that elected officials can keep the public informed is by talking to the press. But that means giving up control over the message, which Dennis and other board members seem unwilling to do. They want to decide what — and when — information about the welcoming ordinance is appropriate for public consumption.

Last week, Dan Fraser, who became the board’s chairman in March, told me the ordinance’s opponents want to keep it “on the front burner, but it’s done. Let’s move on.”

I get that the majority in Hartford has spoken. Does that mean opponents must go silently into the night? Or that the public should be left in the dark about the actions of officials, such as the town manager and attorney, and the viewpoints of its elected officials?

After a little more than a year on the job, Godfrey announced Thursday he’ll end his tenure on Aug. 1, In his resignation letter, Godfrey wrote that he had a “different understanding and expectations for the role of Town Manager” than the board.

Whether or not the board comes to a different understanding and expectations for the role of the press, we’ll still be here, continuing to ask questions.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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