Stepping over the line in Northfield calls for apology

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

What were those Northfield town officials thinking when they trespassed on the Mitchell gravel pit off Mount Hermon Station Road last November?

Clearly some town residents have issues with the operations of Mitchell Aggregate LLC, and apparently at least one Selectboard member seems sympathetic to those concerns, but general concerns don’t warrant local officials walking onto someone’s property unannounced, without permission or legal justification.

Gravel pit owner Robert Mitchell Jr., through his lawyer Kevin Parsons, has twice complained to the Selectboard about a Nov. 20 incident in which board member Julia Blyth, the town’s new administrator Willie Morales, zoning enforcement officer James Hawkins and resident Jennifer Tufts of the Greater Northfield Watershed Association entered Mitchell’s property unannounced for purposes that remain unclear.

In 2008, the town and Mitchell signed an agreement outlining terms and conditions for operating the gravel pit. But this past August, according to Parsons, the Watershed Association wrote a letter to the Selectboard concerned that inspections and well monitoring reports called for in the agreement weren’t being issued regularly. The association also mentioned a June fire involving roughly 1,500 railroad ties, worrying that more railroad ties might be discarded on Mitchell’s land.

Parsons contends that on Nov. 20, Blyth, Morales, Hawkins and Tufts entered the property unannounced. Parsons contends they had no business there and that it was unethical for town officials to bring along Tufts, “a perennial complainer against my client’s business for more than 10 years.” He alleges Blyth intended “to obviously support (the Watershed Association’s) cause because she was formerly on its board of directors.”

When Parsons first confronted the Selectboard, including Blyth, she deflected discussion, saying that the town’s lawyer was looking into the matter and would address it at a subsequent meeting.

But when Mitchell and Parsons showed up the next meeting, Blyth and the town’s lawyers were nowhere to be found, leaving Selectman Jack Spanbauer trying to apologize on the town’s behalf and to move on.

“I don’t think enough thought went into this,” Spanbauer said. “I feel it was a mistake in judgment by her. I think if she had to do it over, she wouldn’t do it again.”

But Parsons and Mitchell don’t seem ready to move on. Parsons asked that Blyth “step up to the plate,” suggesting she have a conversation with his client or resign from the Selectboard. Parsons sounded vaguely threatening, saying “it’s up to her” how the two sides move forward, whether that means an ethics complaint, a criminal complaint or litigation.

Spanbauer assured Parsons and Mitchell, “we’re not going to go down this road again,” but said the town would fight any civil action against it.

Mitchell feels he was wronged and wants an apology.

“How would you feel if my client went onto your property?” Parsons asked the Selectboard. “There needs to be acknowledgement of wrongdoing and there needs to be an apology.”

So far, Blyth hasn’t responded personally, and it’s unclear whether Mitchell will settle for Spanbauer as a stand-in.

We hope that this unfortunate run-in over an ill-advised, unannounced “inspection” doesn’t drag both parties into court, wasting everyone’s time and money. But it seems clear that Blyth, who has been on the board less than two years, Morales, who has been administrator about six months, nor Tufts had business on the property.

There has been no suggestion that an urgent public safety threat needed to be addressed, no clear and present danger, nothing that would have called for emergency responders like police and fire officials.

So, the proper course of action should have been for the Selectboard to discuss the Watershed Association’s concerns among themselves and with Mitchell, perhaps followed by a scheduled, permitted site visit by the appropriate inspectors and Selectboard representatives.

Maybe Spanbauer is right to suggest that Blyth’s relative inexperience as a selectwoman should excuse her actions.

It would be nice if Mitchell could see it that way and move on. After all, he now has a trespass order against Blyth to prevent a repeat visit.

The remaining right thing to do would be for Blyth, Morales and Tufts to apologize for their lapse in judgment.