Inclusion declaration divides Chester board Measure passes on 3-2 vote after testy discussions

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2022 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Despite statements that all five members of the Chester Select Board supported a “declaration of inclusion” adopted by other Vermont towns and proposed by members of the Chester community, the measure only passed by a bare majority of three votes to two last Wednesday night. The discussion of the declaration, which was somewhat testy at times, centered mainly around amendments proposed by Lee Gustafson and Ben Whalen.

The declaration reads:

Recognizing that diversity strengthens and enriches a community, the Town of Chester condemns all forms of discrimination and bigotry. We strongly commit ourselves and our institutions to the fair and equal treatment of everyone, including members of traditionally marginalized groups, who live or work in or pass through our community.

We strive to ensure that all of our plans, policies, programs, procedures, statements and actions reflect these commitments and support a community in which all persons feel welcome and safe to express their opinions and engage in the community.

Board Chair Arne Jonynas says that the declaration reflects the town’s core beliefs Images courtesy of SAPA TV

After reading the text of the declaration, board chair Arne Jonynas remarked that it reflects “our core beliefs and says who we are as a town.”

“The fact that we declare it and reaffirm it is important in a lot of ways,” said Jonynas. “I think it’s a very positive statement and the town should take it to heart.”

Gustafson asked for the origins of the document and Jonynas explained that a group in Chester took their lead from a movement — started in Franklin in northwest Vermont — to have every jurisdiction in Vermont adopt a version of it. He introduced Al Wakefield and Bob Harnish, both of Rutland County, who said they wanted to make people feel welcome in Vermont.

Gustafson then asked if the board thought that the town’s policies lead to discrimination or “are we already there?” He also asked “what problem are we trying to solve?” while saying that we don’t discriminate as a town, but that the language was vague enough to lead to anything.

Noting that he is behind the idea, Gustafson suggested adding the following to the first paragraph: “We also commit ourselves to be inclusive and protective of all people from the elderly to those with disabilities – physical, mental or otherwise – and the pre-born.”

Board members Heather Chase and Leigh Dakin praised the declaration and the group that put it together.

Bob Harnish of Mendon explains the history of the declaration which has been adopted by dozens of Vermont towns

Gustafson asked if the board thought this was a group problem or an individual problem, noting that the town can’t make people less discriminatory. He called the goal laudable, but said there may be marginalized people “we don’t even know about” and was concerned how they might affect others.

Chase compared the declaration to a mission statement that a business might adopt.

Jonynas said it was not a directive and it will be up to the townspeople to decide where we go from here.  Gustafson was concerned about how the declaration might be implemented in the future and by whom.

“If you look at where we’ve come in the past 50 years, some of the things that are going on in society weren’t even imaginable 50 years ago …” said Gustafson, asking what the impact would be on the highway or cemetery crews or the police if in the future we have expectations that they don’t measure up to.

Chase asked Gustafson if he was fearful of something. He said, “If we look at where we’ve come from as a society in the past 50 years, I don’t think we’re in a better place.” He said there was less personal responsibility, more dependency on government and less consideration of those around us leading to a “crumbling of our society.”  Gustafson said that on its face the declaration is fine, but he wants to know the plan of “down the road.”

Board member Ben Whalen said the wording was fine but he would end the first paragraph with the word “everyone” in the second sentence and leave it at that. He was also concerned about the direction the declaration might take the town in the future.

Board members Ben Whalen, left, and Lee Gustafson were concerned about how the declaration could be used in the future.

Whalen’s change would have left out the portion about traditionally marginalized people and Jonynas noted that history has told us that there are marginalized people who have been treated wrongly. “Coming from a life I lived, as a police officer in the ’70s and ’80s, there were situations I’m not proud of that formed my opinion and ideas about what goes on in the world that we can’t turn a blind eye to,” Jonynas said.

Chase moved to adopt the declaration as written and Dakin seconded. Gustafson said he would offer an amendment, which Chase said she did not want. Gustafson said he had a right to put up an amendment and he moved to add the wording above about the “elderly, disabled and pre-born.” The amendment died for lack of being seconded.

Whalen then moved to amend the first paragraph to end at the word “everyone” and Gustafson seconded.

Jonynas called for a roll call and the amendment was defeated 3 to 2.

The original motion passed with Jonynas, Chase and Dakin voting aye and Whalen and Gustafson voting nay.

Former board member Bill Lindsay praised the lively discussion but said it should have been an article on the Town Meeting Warning in March instead of voted on solely by the Select Board.

Budget talks, garden agreement and Yosemite grant

  • The board again discussed closing the budget shortfall – much of which was due to Covid expenses and cost increases – with funds from the $900,000 grant the town received from the American Rescue Plan Act. Using the funds for that and several other expenses already agreed upon would leave about half of the grant. The board also continued to talk with the Whiting Library about a raise of $7,000 to cover the cost of a new librarian to replace Deirdre Doran, who resigned over a dispute with the library board. Six members of that board also resigned before it mailed the annual fundraising appeal.
  • The board reviewed a “revocable license” suggested by town attorney Jim Carroll for the use of the Canal Street well property for community garden plots and possibly a future greenhouse. Jonynas said the document was more complicated than he expected, but Gustafson thought it protects the town in the event of unforeseen circumstances. The board asked Cheryl Joy Lipton, who heads up the Community Garden, project to have the group’s lawyer take a look at the license so they can move forward.
  • Town Manager Julie Hance announced that the state was awarding the town $20,000 to work on doors and windows for the Yosemite Fire House. The matching $20,000 is one of the projects already marked for ARPA funding mentioned above.
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  1. Raymond Makul says:

    Ironic that, in the adoption of a declaration of inclusion, some want to include a hot button issue that is a principal divider in our society.

    Sort of like wanting to include pork in a list of approved foods, for the consideration of a group of people of all major faiths.

  2. Beverly Hart says:

    It is high time we look at what is actually going on around us. This declaration is much needed. Many are not aware of the racist activity that takes place right here in Chester. There is discrimination in our schools and the town. Chester townspeople need to be aware of it. It is happening and if the town of Chester is willing to stand by this declaration we will be taking steps forward.

  3. Barre Pinske says:

    Interesting discussion. As much as people may have been or felt marginalized there has always been great Americans standing up for all and keeping us on the best path forward. Drawing attention and making statements is nice but it’s clear it’s more like frosting than the cake the masses get on board after the real work has been done. We have a great country that’s getting a little bit RAH! RAH! with some of this feel good stuff perhaps swinging a bit far actually to the point where straight old white guys like me are getting crap now! A neighbor called me a white privileged racist. I make art and live in Chester I don’t think I’m anything really! Those of us who lost friends to aids know real pain and loss with in a marginalized group I can’t imagine what segregation was like it’s awful. Obviously it’s never too late but my feeling is there is discrimination in other parts of the world that are still horrific if there is limited energy and efforts to solve problems it probably should be spent in those places rather then Chester. I may write a declaration for the love and support of cake I love cake! God bless us all especially those who blame others for their problems.

  4. Hugh Quinn says:

    I support the Select Board’s decision to adopt the declaration of inclusion. A declaration is not a mandate or directive and does not imply there is a problem to be solved or some unforeseen future consequence to be concerned about. The declaration is a statement that represents a core value or guiding principle about how the town of Chester views diversity and inclusion. Documenting core values is a meaningful way to keep the things we hold true top of mind and clear as we carry on with our daily lives.

    Editor’s note: Hugh Quinn is a member of the Chester Planning Commission.

  5. Christopher Wallace says:

    The declaration reflects the values of inclusivity that corporate America, academia, the federal government, the military, and most of the nation have committed to in the 21st Century. The conservative opposition expressed, both on the Board and here in the comments, speak volumes as to why such a declaration should be adopted here at the local level, as well.

  6. Skip Woodruff says:

    I can only imagine how dull the lives must be of anyone who sat around and came up with such a meaningless statement as this “resolution”. Feel-good virtue signaling gobbledygook in the worst form. I applaud the two who declined to sign on to such crap !!!

  7. Arlene Mutschler says:

    the key is ALL people should be treated as equally as possible. Meaning NO ONE gets different treatment. That is the operative. Minorities and Majorities treated equally.