Editorial: Chester officials can do more to engage the public

By Shawn Cunningham
©The Chester Telegraph — 2014

Tonight, Wednesday, Sept. 17, the Chester Select Board is scheduled to adopt new zoning regulations, and from comments made by board members at the Sept. 3 meeting, Chester residents either don’t have an opinion on the regulations or are not engaged in the process because they have not shown up for the meetings.

Having been at a number of the Planning Commission meetings and many Select Board meetings during this process, I’d like to offer some observations and suggestions.

The rewriting of the zoning regulations began in 2010 and has been reported on extensively in The Telegraph. The process involved combining regulations governing zoning, flood hazards and subdivisions to revise and package them as a single document – the Unified Development Bylaws — with the help of the Southern Windsor County Regional Development Planning Commission.

This long, complex and detailed process took place from June 2010 until the Select Board took up a review of the newly proposed regulations in May 2013. While these sessions were open to the public, the meetings were not always on the days listed on the town’s Web site. And, since 2010, only three Planning Commission agendas have been posted on the town Web site and no minutes.

From May until September 2013, the Chester Select Board earmarked a portion of seven meetings for consideration of the proposed bylaws. Development Bylaws were agenda items No. 6 or later in most of the meetings of a Select Board that routinely meets until 11 p.m. or later.

In November 2013, Select Board chair John DeBenedetti asked for an update on the zoning regulations. He was told that the Planning Commission hoped to have revisions made to the regulations by the end of December.

In July of this year, the Select Board took up the revised regs.

The first hearing for public comment – which must be warned —  was not published in the town’s paper of record until the day of the hearing. This appeared to have been an error on the part of the paper. Notwithstanding that the hearing was No. 7 on the nine-item agenda, there were residents present to comment on the proposed regulations.

The recessed hearing was reopened on July 16 — from 6 to 7 p.m. — then recessed. Seven members of the public (not including press, town employees or Planning Commission members) attended. The next two installments of the hearing were warned, opened and immediately recessed due to absences of Select Board members. This left the Sept. 3 meeting (attended by eight members of the public) in which Select Board members questioned the interest and engagement of Chester residents.

Consistency, information matter

Chester has residents who show up, but if we want greater public involvement with the process of town government, we might want to take some steps to show residents (and non-resident property owners) that their time, their ideas and their opinions are valuable and welcomed. For example:

  • Meetings that are required by law to inform the public and elicit comment should generally be stand-alone sessions.
  • Meetings should have detailed agendas available on the town Web site and sent to the media — as far in advance as possible — so the public can inform itself and prepare.
  • Current versions of proposed regulations (or whatever is on the agenda) should be available — as far in advance as possible — on the town Web site not just on the counter at Town Hall.
  • Detailed meeting minutes for those sessions should be available on the town’s Web site.
  • Meetings held to elicit public comment should allot ample time for comment. That time should not be taken up by the comments of town officials or their responses to public comments unless requested by the public.

Greater participation means going beyond the quaint minimums of notice — like physically posting pieces of paper at three locations in the town — and embracing the technologies we have to inform and engage people in the public’s business.

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