Question of Bethel's police coverage to be settled Tuesday?
For much of early 2010, confusion was the keystone of Bethel’s approach to police coverage.
At a special referendum vote next Tuesday, June 8, town voters will have another chance to finally clear up that confusion, by deciding if they wish the town to be covered by its own police department – as it has been for more than 40 years – or by dedicated deputies from the Oxford County Sheriff's Department.
(Note: The police vote will be Tuesday, not at Wednesday’s continuation of Bethel’s 2010 annual Town Meeting, where 35 other articles will be discussed and voted upon.)
This will be the second time this year the question has gone to a town-wide vote.
On Feb. 9 nearly 200 voters turned out at a Special Town Meeting, called to see whether the town wanted to switch to county coverage.
Critics of the current Bethel Police Department argued it was understaffed, plagued by high turnover (especially among its academy-trained officers), and lacked the investigative backup (i.e., dedicated detectives) required for modern policing.
If Bethel were to contract with the county, supporters of that option argued, the town would have more consistent coverage, from better trained, better paid, and better backed-up deputies.
And it appeared that a majority of the voters who showed up agreed. After an hour of questions and debate they voted 104-89 to switch to county coverage.
But even as town selectmen were preparing for the switchover, complaints were being raised that the voting process and ballot used at the Feb. 9 meeting were so confused that many voters ended up casting ballots contrary to their own intentions.
Resident Scott Harlow began circulating a petition demanding a revote.
Harlow said he was not out to change the outcome of the vote. “My biggest thing is I would like to see it go to a fair vote, and if the vote goes for the county, I’d respect that, and I’d be the first person to shake the sheriff’s hand,” Harlow said.
Despite Harlow having collected 215 validated signatures on the petition, town selectmen (with the exception of Don Bennett) initially resisted.
They changed their minds only after the town attorney informed them that if the Feb. 9 vote was ruled invalid by a court, they could be exposed financially as individuals both for funds shifted to the county and some legal costs.
They scheduled the revote for next Tuesday.
Voters will choose one of two options:
1) Keep and upgrade the town’s Police Department, and spend $453,794 on it for the coming year. (BPD supporters long argued that the current department’s problems could be corrected by paying officers competitive wages and providing adequate financial support for the department itself. Some have contended that the amount of money voters will be forced to approve if they want to keep the department is beyond what is actually needed.)
2) Contract with the county, at a cost for the coming year of $295,000 (plus $8,000 for animal control).
On our online "Letter" section this week, readers will find letters from former Police Chief Darren Tripp, who supports keeping the Bethel Department, and Stan Howe, current chairman of the Board of Selectmen, who makes the case for switching to county coverage. (Both Howe and Tripp are on the ballot this year as candidates for the Bethel Board of Selectmen.)