A government official’s decision to bring armed law-enforcement officers to maintain order at a public meeting on water quality has raised questions about the use of force.
Judith McLaughlin lives a short walk from Lake Carmi, and over the past few years, she’s attended many meetings about its future. The latest was held on Thursday night in a downstairs conference room at a residential facility for seniors in Franklin.
When McLaughlin arrived, the first thing she noticed was two armed game wardens standing near the entrance.
“And when I turned and looked at them I was kind of surprised, because at first I thought, ‘Oooh, someone important is here. They've got an armed escort,’” McLaughlin says.
There was no esteemed guest of honor though. As McLaughlin and other locals would learn later in the meeting, the wardens were there to “enforce” the evening’s agenda.
“And I think those were the words that were used: ‘Enforce the agenda,’” McLaughlin says. “I think most people in the audience just were like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
The meeting was held by the Lake Carmi Implementation Team, a group of government and municipal officers and local volunteers that are deploying a cleanup plan for Lake Carmi.
McLaughlin says past meetings have gotten “a little rowdy.” But she says that’s because residents think that the state’s response to one of the most polluted bodies of water in Vermont has been wholly inadequate.
“We’re angry, we’re frustrated. We’re looking at everything: our health, our investments, our community is going downhill with this pollution in this lake,” McLaughlin says.
But McLaughlin says no one’s ever come close to threatening violence.
“To hear that a state official came locked and loaded to enforce an agenda … I’m still wrapping my head around it,” McLaughlin says.
Emily Boedecker, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Conservation, is the official who summoned the wardens to the meeting.
“The reason I asked the wardens to be present last night is because at the last three meetings we haven't been able to get through the agenda,” Boedecker says. “And there were both volunteers and other members of the community who had expressed their concerns to me that they were no longer able to be part of the conversation.”
Boedecker says that at past meetings, disruptive behavior by some people had prevented the implementation team from conducting important business.
“But fortunately, I think the presence of the wardens was something that helped calm the situation, and we were able to have a productive meeting,” Boedecker says.
McLaughlin says she and other people at the meeting read the situation far differently.
To them, McLaughlin says the message from Boedecker, and state government more broadly, was clear:
“Sit down, shut up, listen to what I’m going to tell you, and then if you don’t do what I say, we’re going to haul you out and cite you. That is a response from the state that just flabbergasted me,” McLaughlin says.
Boedecker says she told the wardens before that meeting she’d let them know if she thought someone was getting out of line. If that happened, Boedecker says ultimately the wardens would have physically escorted the person from the premises, though she says she doesn’t think it would have come to that.
It might not be the last meeting McLaughlin and others encounter uniformed officers at local water quality meetings. Boedecker says she plans to have wardens at the meetings as long as she thinks it’s “necessary.”