Editor’s note: This commentary is by Rosemarie Jackowski, an advocacy journalist and peace activist who is the author of “Banned in Vermont.”
Those who say any publicity is good might not be right this time. The new anti-panhandler law has brought focus to Bennington from far and wide. Most of the publicity has been very negative. We need to find a way out of this quagmire.
Locally the law has generated the largest citizen protest since March 20, 2003. That protest opposed the “shock and awe war,” the invasion of Iraq, which caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands.
A few citizens are asking questions about a possible conflict of interest. Three members of the selectboard have connections to businesses on Main Street. Whether or not any law was broken is not the issue. There is a perception of impropriety. Selectboards represent all citizens, not only the business community.
Some citizens are circulating petitions so that the law will be the subject of a citizen vote.
The issue right now, today, is how do we stop the bleeding and allow the healing process to begin.
Many others, have serious concerns about the impact of this law on taxes. Laws restricting free speech have been overturned all over the country. Legal battles are expensive. Will taxpayers be at risk if the law is challenged on constitutional grounds? The “law of unintended consequences” might come back to haunt us sometime in the near future.
Beyond all that, there is another question. Was the law based on misinformation? Citizens, and also maybe some members of the selectboard, were given the impression that the law was necessary because the presence of panhandlers was having a negative impact on Main Street businesses. How can that be? The front page of the Oct. 15, 2013, issue of the Bennington Banner ran a news report about how great business was. “I’ve been here for 13 years, and this is the best Columbus Day weekend since,” said the office manager of Evans News. Other Main Street businesses reported similar good news.
The issue right now, today, is how do we stop the bleeding and allow the healing process to begin. There is a way. Think about this: What would happen if a citizen — any citizen — made a request of the selectboard to reconsider the law and have an immediate re-vote? Could that happen without a citizen request? Suppose the selectboard on their own, made the decision to hold a re-vote. This would be a win-win-win for everyone. There is no downside to this. Consider the risk-benefit ratio. The selectboard would look good, because they would be functioning at the highest level of democratic standards. The citizens would be comforted to know that the members of the selectboard were courageous enough to either change their votes, or convinced that their original votes were correct.
With the new information that is now available — the depth of citizen opposition, and the information in the Oct. 15 issue of the Banner, the members of the selectboard owe it to themselves to reconsider. A few votes of conscience could turn this around.