Residents upset with town meeting dispute

  • From left to right, Town Administrator Tom Hutcheson, Selectmen Robert Armstrong and Robert Baker, and Selectboard Chairman John P. O’Rourke at Monday’s board meeting. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo

Recorder Staff
Tuesday, November 14, 2017

CONWAY — Residents who felt slighted by a decision to table a proposed “Safe Community” article at October’s special town meeting voiced their displeasure publicly at Monday’s Selectboard meeting.

“I am not coming to you tonight to debate the merits of the bylaw. That should have happened at our town meeting,” said Linda Driscoll in a statement to the three-member board. Driscoll, who lives on Shelburne Falls Road, said she left feeling “where the purest form of democracy is practiced our voices were silenced. I’ve heard from people on both sides of this issue who were not happy this vote was stifled.”

Discussion during Monday’s Selectboard centered around town meeting rules. Historically, but not officially, Conway has followed Robert’s Rules of Order, a format of parliamentary procedure. Citing Robert’s Rules’ website, Driscoll and at least four other residents said they think the rules weren’t followed correctly.

At the Oct. 30 special town meeting, the “Safe Community” article was introduced by Nelson Shifflett, author of a citizen petition that garnered more than 100 signatures to put the article on the warrant. During the meeting, Police Chief Ken Ouimette and Selectboard Chariman John P. O’Rourke spoke out against it. Then Ouimette immediately put forward a motion to table the article, seconded by O’Rourke, which subsequently passed by a three-vote margin, 59-56. There wasn’t any public discussion and the meeting ended soon after.

Had it passed, the bylaw would have prevented Conway police from honoring noncriminal civil immigration detainer requests, and all town employees from acting as immigration officers.

After the meeting and the original complaints from residents about the tabling first surfaced, O’Rourke noted that “someone could have brought it (the article) up right after it was tabled.”

Shifflett said it wasn’t brought up again because residents didn’t understand the rules well. He said tabling an article is typically used when there’s not enough information available at the moment, and the article is again taken up for a vote at the end of the meeting.

“Chief Ouimette spoke about the bylaw creating division in our community,” Phyllis K. Jeswald, a resident, said. “I would suggest it was Chief Ouimette who brought about this divisiveness by cutting off what could have been an educational and respectful discussion.”

Selectman Robert Baker said tabling the motion wasn’t planned in advance. “There’s no conspiracy. We never discussed it,” he said.

Jeswald and Driscoll requested the Selectboard take a vote to put the item back on the agenda for the town’s spring annual meeting. O’Rourke said the board hasn’t begun considering what that agenda will be, and suggested putting forward another citizen petition (requiring only 10 signatures this time). Meanwhile, the board expressed interest in officially clarifying the format Conway will follow at future town meetings.

Looking ahead, Jeswald said the article will be on the spring town meeting warrant one way or another, probably through a citizen’s petition.