“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
–William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
Unfortunately, Milton continues to be haunted by the ghosts of its sordid political past (which seems a fitting topic for the Halloween and election season). The recent City Council hearings pertaining to The Painted Horse are a stark reminder that Milton’s politics and government remain mired in political rivalries dating back to the founding of the city. Fittingly, these hearings come at the end of Laura Bentley’s first and perhaps last (she has opted not to run for re-election) term on Council. On Monday night, I attended the hearing on Milton’s alcohol ordinance involving myriad changes that clearly targeted The Painted Horse and are intended to effectively shut down this winery. The hearing was a clear abuse of process and yet another embarrassing example of Milton’s politics of personal destruction. The gravity of Milton’s long history of dirty politics is strong. While the cast of characters changes, Milton’s political shenanigans remain drearily the same, with citizens perennially on the proverbial short end of the stick.
Monday’s hearing was painful for those of us who previously were so hopeful about the future of Milton and invested heavily in the cause of reform. For 2 years (2015 – 2017), a citizens’ rebellion defied Milton’s political forces that so often drag our government down into the muck and mud. Good governance was on the march. Organized citizen advocacy achieved important victories on critical issues of policy by fending off cluster housing ordinances, re-zonings to higher density, HOA-run community septic systems, and other existential threats to the community. I was proud to play a leadership role in these victories through this blog, the posting of petitions, emails to concerned citizens, and other advocacy. Over time, those of us in the vanguard of change realized that sustainable change would only be achievable through substantive reform of Milton’s governance processes. We determined to invest our accumulated political capital in such reform. Through revisions to Milton’s municipal code, the very architecture of government would be changed to ensure greater fairness, transparency, accountability, and rigor. (James Madison would be proud.) Milton would become a model for other cities. But to effect such a transformation, we needed a caring, tireless and courageous advocate on City Council . . . enter Laura Bentley.
In December of 2016, Laura Bentley convened a meeting of six of us to choose a candidate for District 2 Post 1 in the upcoming 2017 elections . . . we chose Laura. And Laura’s defining campaign plank was “shifting power back to citizens” . . . that is, permanent changes to the framework of government that would survive Laura’s tenure on Council and put Milton on a steady, steeper upward trajectory . . . defying the downward pull of special interests and personality politics. Within the rule of law, the prerogatives of citizens would reign supreme. Most importantly, Milton would actually follow its laws (and long-established zoning practice) in only granting variances for minor discrepancies that met all 4 tests for hardship (prescribed in Milton’s zoning laws).
To effect such reform, we knew that Laura would need a landslide victory. Through various platforms, an appeal was made to volunteers and voters. Thankfully, citizens answered our clarion call to action, enthusiastically contributing in various ways to Laura’s candidacy. The groundswell for good governance was undeniable . . . Laura captured 71+% of the vote, defeating a well-financed, politically-experienced incumbent who had been on council since Milton’s founding. The investment of our hard-earned political capital had paid off at the polls. Good governance was within grasp . . . Laura surely would make it happen . . . citizens were clearly behind her . . . Laura’s election was mandate for change . . . Laura would be unstoppable.
But alas, it was not meant to be. To the great dismay of her supporters, within 3 months of her election, Laura disavowed the core principles of the citizens’ movement that elected her. In the context of her support for a multitude of variances (28 in total for 3 separate properties) at Birmingham Crossroads, Laura stated to me “Tim, I know how you feel about process, but citizens don’t care about process; they only care about outcomes. They don’t understand or care about variances.” (Laura was parroting Joe Lockwood.) Laura further stated that the City Attorney had advised her that council had “discretion” in granting variances, which Laura interpreted as nearly limitless discretion. (Interestingly, the City Attorney asserted otherwise in the Crossroads hearings, stating that Milton’s ordinances do not allow granting of variances to improve outcomes and advised—in lawyer speak—against approving the very variances that Laura supported. Click on the below link to hear Jarrard’s guidance.) Laura’s flip-flop on variances (and more broadly on re-architecting government), whereby she wholeheartedly adopted the stance of her 2017 opponent, caused a permanent rupture in Laura’s relationship with me and many other staunch supporters.
And so it was that Laura became untethered from principles of good governance and alienated from most of her supporters. Milton’s politics quickly reverted to the old ways. Nothing substantive has been accomplished to fundamentally change the architecture of government, to further good governance, or (in Laura’s words) to “shift power back to citizens.” In fact, in many respects, Milton governance has regressed since I became involved 6 years ago. For example, earlier in 2021, the Charter Commission, which previously met every 5 years and was one of the few checks on Council power, was disbanded by City Council. This fundamental change to Milton’s charter went virtually unnoticed by citizens.
This brings me back to The Painted Horse. On Monday night, Laura (and Paul Moore) led the charge against the Painted Horse. For 3+ hours, City Council mercilessly pencil-whipped Milton’s alcohol ordinance. Some 100 changes were considered by Council. The result is a complex and convoluted alcohol ordinance that likely will drag Milton into a legal quagmire about what sorts of entertainment/recreational venues are acceptable in Milton . . . a most unadmirable legacy bequeathed to citizens by Ms. Bentley. And council’s actions beg a number of questions. Is it really Council’s role to wallow in the details and write ordinances? Or rather isn’t Council’s role to provide guidance to staff and then hold them accountable for writing sensible ordinances? Of course, it must be remembered that a farm-winery is a by-right use established under state law. Accordingly, is it reasonable to suppose that a court will uphold an alcohol ordinance (or other measures) clearly intended to subvert state law and effectively ban farm-wineries in Milton? Will Council Members Bentley, Moore, et al dip into their pockets to cover the legal expenses for the City and the Painted Horse should a court rule against Milton’s interference? Consider that Milton’s alcohol ordinance includes a ridiculous provision that prohibits Painted Horse patrons from straying more than 20 feet from the tasting room building (and enjoying the beauty of the farm with its vineyards). The 20-foot adjacency restriction appears an unreasonable encumbrance, meant (along with other interference) by Lilliputian members of Council to tie down and tangle up The Painted Horse and to carry out a personal vendetta against the owners.
Unfortunately, the Painted Horse saga is a sad reminder that Laura’s election did not result in shifting power back to citizens and that good governance continues to elude Milton. However, I suppose there is a certain measure of poetic justice in the fact that a co-operator of The Painted Horse, Juliette Johnson, will succeed Ms. Bentley as the District 2, Post 1 City Council representative. Perhaps, Painted Horse’s owner, Pam Jackson, will run against and displace the last remaining representative of Milton’s Old Guard (and other District 2 representative) Paul Moore (who political slithering dates back to the City’s first election when he was a candidate). Based on her background, Ms. Jackson seems a smart, accomplished, and courageous professional and business owner . . . just the sort of person we need on council. And, of course, Milton certainly has a storied reputation for ejecting misbehaving Council members (or else prompting them not to run to run for re-election to avoid certain defeat at the ballot box). I remain hopeful.
Advocating For a Break With Milton’s Political Past,
Note: In future posts, I will speak to 1) Paul Moore’s central role in past and present dysfunction in the Milton City government and 2) City’s Manager Krokoff’s failure in his basic responsibilities as chief executive at City Hall.