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Social media breathes life into opposition to detention center

Bellows Falls area residents take to their computers to question sheriff’s project and organize petitions, public meetings, and other advocacy

BELLOWS FALLS—Given the influence of social media in politics around the world, from the Arab Spring to Bernie Sanders’ grassroots presidential campaign, it’s hardly surprising that Vermonters are taking to this technology to leverage their voices and opinions.

In the wake of the announcement of the proposal by the Windham County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) to locate a 120-bed detention center at the south end of the Village by the confluence of the Saxtons and Connecticut rivers, social media and citizen journalism have played an important part in giving voice to dissent on the project.

The Liberty Mill Justice Center is billed as a transition facility to house U.S. Marshals federal detainees awaiting trial dates — the main contract to support the project, according to its author, Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark — as well as a transition, support, and training center for those who have served their time in Vermont and need to satisfy their conditions of release.

The project, proposed for the former Chemco building at 203 Papermill Road, has drawn the ire of citizens who feel they have been left out of the process on a project some have said would change the whole character of the village, were it to be located here.

Clark has tried to stay ahead of the nearly immediate tsunami of public criticism of his development proposal, but is battling both an image problem and an immediate lack of information, as the project is still in early days and much is still unknown.

Facebook pages and groups emerged or took on new life around the issue, including “Friends of Liberty Mill,” “Bellows Falls Looking Forward,” and “The Future of Bellows Falls.”

But if the Facebook activity is any indication, a significant bloc of citizens feels blindsided — and very upset with the development office, which has enthusiastically backed the project in its formative stages.

The tone of comments on social media have run the gamut, from collaborative fact-finding and links to public documents to measured analysis and debate to threads that have devolved into allegations of character assassinations, rumor, and innuendo.

But the role of social media has fueled citizen involvement, culminating in a newly formed citizens’ group that, according to a press release, calls for “creative adaptive reuse of the town’s empty paper mills and for changes to the Town’s zoning regulations.”

Deborah Wright, who spearheaded the signature process for one of two petitions to get the issue in front of voters, calls social media “a relief valve and a gathering place for open debate and collaboration in today’s fast paced lifestyle.”

“It ripples out to cover many and gives them the freedom to read, consider, and respond if they so choose,” Wright said. “It is a dialogue tool like no other.”

Rockingham voters to discuss issue

At a mid-November public meeting at the Bellows Falls Opera House, Clark told residents that if he saw that the majority of residents is opposed to the location of the LMJC in Bellows Falls, he would respect their wishes.

But he also intimated that if he felt any such vote was “not based on facts” but instead on an emotional reaction, he would view such a popular consensus differently.

Even before meeting, Bellows Falls-related social media pages lit up with calls for action. Following Clark’s presentation, several petitions to force Town Meeting discussions of the LMJC started to pop up around the Village Square.

Two petitions to put the question to voters to let them decide have been presented to both the Rockingham Selectboard and the Bellows Falls Village Trustees, respectively.

On Jan. 14, Suzanne Groenewald presented the first petition to the Selectboard.

The board has approved the petition as a nonbinding vote on the Rockingham Annual Town Meeting warning.

Since all Bellows Falls and Rockingham registered voters can weigh in on that question, the Village Trustees decided to table discussion of a similar petition authored and presented to the board by Deborah Wright, seeking a slot on the Village Meeting agenda.

With the town vote nearly two months before the meeting in early May, Trustees said they have time to add it should it be deemed necessary.

The citizens hope that a “no” vote from Rockingham will both gain the attention of Clark and empower the boards to act on behalf of opponents to the LMJC project.

Public collaborates, discusses issues

Citizen opposition to the project has found voice on several Bellows Falls dedicated Facebook pages, as well as public access television.

Falls Area Community Television (FACT) has a growing archive of meetings and programs dedicated to discussing the LMJC. Online streaming is being used more frequently so residents can attend meetings in real time.

The cable station has hosted several citizen interviews with Clark on Mike Smith’s show, Mike Smith Presents, during which Groenewald — one petition author — fielded questions from citizens and questioned the sheriff directly. Groenewald said in an email that she was “overwhelmed by the amount of citizen input and participation” in response to the LMJC.

“People I’ve never met before and who have been living in this village as long as I have are not only speaking out about local issues, but backing their statements up with documented research, Vermont state statutes, and historical accounts of events that took place in our village in the past,” she said.

Letters to the editor and other commentary have dominated newspapers in Windham County. Statewide digital and online media started picking up the story, lifting quotes from Facebook pages.

One frequent Facebook poster, Bonnie North, a professional writer, began to use her background to dig up websites and post links to public documents and other resources.

Others, like Douglas Anarino, shared their own narratives about Bellows Falls.

Anarino, a computer programmer who relocated to the Village in 2009, pointed out the quality-of-life issues that attracted him to the region, kicking off a discussion of different methods of economic development.

“Social media provide alternative narratives that are not espoused by the corporate media, as well as clear evidence that they are popular perspectives,” Anarino told The Commons.

Residents take discussion offline

Wright pointed out that not everyone is using social media, and that is where public meetings fill the bill and allow others to participate with their voices.

And indeed, a call for more informational meetings was one of the most frequent on the Facebook threads. Representation was the other.

Wright, Groenewald, and Polly Thompson, organized a Jan. 14 meeting at the Windham Antique Center. Groenewald served as moderator.

Windham Antique Center owner Michael Bruno — who said he was “remaining neutral” on the issue — has held various community meetings at his business, on the Square downtown. He said it was important to him that community members have a voice in decisions that affect their village.

Bellows Falls Police Chief Ron Lake, Development Director Francis “Dutch” Walsh, and Municipal Manager Willis “Chip” Stearns II attended, but they primarily listened.

Groenewald said the intent of the meeting was to clarify questions and concerns, and discuss alternative uses for the Chemco building.

New group seeks better options

In direct response to what organizers consider “the wrong direction” taken by the Development Office with regard to what should go in the Chemco building, a group calling itself Rockingham for Progress (RFP) is opposed to the Liberty Mill Justice Center, and has organized a website, is selling “Don’t Jail Our Future” lawn signs, and is establishing itself as an LLC.

The group is circulating a petition, primarily authored by Merritt Schnipper, an RFP member and attorney, that calls for changing the definition of a “public/municipal facility,” under which the project’s proponents claim it would currently fall, and for changing permitted uses in the “Riverfront 14” zone, where the building sits.

The proposed change would specifically disallow “[a]ny facility in which more than eighteen people are incarcerated at any time or in which any person or persons are incarcerated for seven or more consecutive days,” calling such activity “not compatible with the recreational potential of riverfront property.”

The group reports that, in less than a week, it is well on its way to its goal of 250 signatures. A petition for a Special Town Meeting requires the signatures of 5 percent of the registered voters.

More meetings ahead

Little new information about the LMJC has emerged since November. Groenewald has promised more meetings, as has Clark, who said in December that he planned to hold meetings weekly, “or when we have new information.”

Clark was in Montpelier last week testifying before the Justice Committee on his electronic monitoring bill, and was asked about the LMJC [story, A1].

A building assessment on the Chemco building is due back soon, according to Walsh. The results of this are crucial to what happens next in the process. No zoning application has been filed.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #340 (Wednesday, January 20, 2016). This story appeared on page C1.

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