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Activists file horse racing house rule petition amid questions raised over selection committee policy changes

Greater Barrington— A home rule petition allowing residents of Great Barrington to weigh in on the possible return of horse racing to the fairgrounds has racked up hundreds of signatures, allowing residents to weigh in on the controversial topic at a special town meeting .

Meanwhile, allies of a member of the selection committee who first brought the horse racing domicile rule issue to the public are raising serious questions about some proposed changes to the policy of communication from council and the residents’ right to be heard during the public comment period at the selection committee. meetings.

A photograph from the 1960s shows the horse racing meet at the Great Barrington Fairgrounds. Photo courtesy of Great Barrington Historical Society

Citizens concerned about GB Horseracinga Facebook group formed earlier this year to share concerns about the return of horse racing to fairgrounds, announced on November 1 that he had filed the petition at the town hall with 471 signatures, far more than the 200 required, to force a special municipal assembly:

“The next step will be to inform all UK voters of the date of the special town meeting, so that citizens can go out and formally vote on sending the Home Rule petition to the legislature to ensure that no race horses come into the UK without the approval of the local assembly. The date will be announced within the month.

The group began circulating the petition just over two weeks ago, in part by setting up tables on Saturday mornings at the Berkshire Food Cooperative and at the Great Barrington Farmers Market. The group has researched the topic of horse racing in the state and produced a fact sheet about it. Click here to consult the file and here to see suggested “action steps” for residents of Great Barrington.

“We are very grateful to everyone who signed and to the dozens of people who circulated the petition, demonstrating their demand for the right to vote on horse racing in Great Barrington,” said Concerned Citizens organizer Pam Youngquist at The Edge.

The decision to start a petition came shortly after Senator Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, state co-sponsored a bill that would have allowed Sterling Suffolk Racecourse to restart the race in Great Barrington for a few weeks in the fall, has withdrawn its sponsorship of Senate Bill 101.

After a failed attempt in partnership with a major casino operator, Sterling Suffolk sold it now closed Thoroughbred Suffolk Downs race track in East Boston to developers in 2017 for $155 million. Track held its last races in May this year.

Bart and Janet Elsbach in 2012, shortly after acquiring the Fairgrounds. Photo: David Scribner

Sterling Suffolk Racecourse has entered into a lease agreement with fairground owners Bart and Janet Elsbach to bring Thoroughbred racing back to Great Barrington for 40 days during the months of September and October, with the aim to begin in 2020. The company expects to spend between $15 million and $20 million on the project.

But to accomplish this feat, Suffolk needs a change in state law to allow it to hold races in Great Barrington while allowing it to maintain its simulcast and remote betting operations in East Boston. This is one of the reasons why law Projectwho was returned to the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional License and is still waiting at Beacon Hill even without Hinds sponsorship.

Section 12 of the Senate bill reads: “New local approval…shall not be required for thoroughbred horse racetracks that have been licensed by the commission or by the state racing commission which preceded it for commercial racing under Chapter 128A.”

Since Great Barrington’s permanent horse racing license was granted in 1998, the last year of horse racing in the town, a town-wide referendum would not be required for Sterling Suffolk to operate in the park exhibitions, raising concerns among city officials that Suffolk chose Great Barrington precisely because the bill, if passed, would make horse racing much harder for residents to stop. The project would require up to three special permits from the city.

The subject generated a a slew of letters to the editor from The Edge, all opposed to horse racing and primarily on animal cruelty grounds. Here is a sample:

Selection committee chairman Steve Bannon told The Edge that council would likely set a date for the special town meeting at its next meeting on Wednesday, November 13. The law requires the council to set a date within 45 days of receiving the petition. Voters will be asked if they wish to send the self-reliance petition to the Boston State Legislature.

At a July 22 meeting, Great Barrington Selectboard member Leigh Davis, right, read a statement and motion to press the pause button on the horse racing bill. At left are fellow council members Bill Cooke and Kate Burke. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Member of the selection committee Leigh Davis first raised the issue at a board meeting on July 22, shortly after learning through media reports that the city was unrepresented at a public hearing on the bills in Boston on July 1 before the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional License. After requesting in advance that the item be put on the agenda, as members of the selection committee are entitled to do, Davis raised a series of questions about the lack of local control.

On the agenda for last night’s regular selection committee meeting was the consideration of a draft board policies and procedures. Some observers believe that a few changes have been proposed to these policies and procedures aimed at preventing Davis and other members of the selection committee from putting items on the agenda without a majority vote of the five-member council or discuss on social networks. The agenda item policy has since been removed from the draft.

Alain Chartock. Photo courtesy WAMC

Davis declined to comment and said she would bring it up at the next board meeting. But the Edge contributor and regional radio manager Alan Chartock defended Davis, whom he called “the hero in this story”, in his November 2 column. Indeed, Chartock questioned the motives of his fellow board members in proposing the changes.

“It all comes down to an attempt to silence the independent voice of Leigh Davis, who got it right on the money,” Chartock wrote. “It’s a move reminiscent of something Donald Trump might do in violation of democratic principles.”

Nothing could be further from the truth, Bannon said. The article, he said, was simply being discussed and turned out to be a “bad idea”.

“Some people took it personally and thought he was trying to stifle debate,” Bannon said. And so the idea was scratched.

Another element would insist that members of the selection committee “refrain from commenting outside of a board meeting on matters pending before the board or which need to be brought before the board as part of a review process. public audience. This includes comments on any form of social media…”.

Bannon said the policy was not an attempt to stifle council members’ free speech, but rather a precaution designed to shield the city from liability. A commission member’s opinion expressed before a public hearing could be construed as actionable bias.

On July 22, in what is sure to be the first of many sessions, the Great Barrington Selectboard and members of the public discussed Suffolk Downs’ plans to bring horse racing back to Great Barrington Fairgrounds. From left to right are City Manager Mark Pruhenski, Selection Committee Chairman Steve Bannon and Council Vice Chairman Ed Abrahams. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Also, as is the case with email communication (Click here for a recent example in South Berkshire County), a council member’s comments on social media, if other council members read or respond to them, could be a breach of the Open Meetings Act prohibiting deliberations outside of a publicly noticed meeting, Bannon explained.

And there is a proposed method of enforcement: “The Selection Committee shall enforce these policies and procedures…Any member who is found by the Board to have violated these policies and procedures may be removed from a committee or of another assignment by the president, and may be subject to public censure by the selection committee.

Bannon said these two policies and their application came from Councilman David Doneski of KP Law, who advice on social media policy and the Public Meetings Act published on the cabinet’s website.

Another proposed revision to the Selection Committee’s policies and procedures relates to what members of the public are permitted to address during public comment, known to Great Barrington Town Hall as “citizen speaking”:

“Citizens’ speaking time shall not be used for comments or questions regarding any matter which is pending before or which is to be submitted to the Selection Committee in a public hearing.”

Bannon again said it was a recommendation from the city attorney because such comments on a pending matter that will come before council in the form of a public hearing “could bias the committee. of selection and the candidate is not there to answer”.

These proposed revisions will again be on the agenda for the selection committee meeting on Wednesday, November 13, which has been rescheduled for November 4. This previous meeting had to be canceled due to a power outage downtown.

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Teresa R. Cabrera

The author Teresa R. Cabrera