A change in town personnel in Waterford has caused an outcry from town residents.
On March 8, the town select board met for regular business following the March 2 Australian ballot election.
As they do every year, the board worked their way through a list of positions to be appointed.
Gilbert “Gib” Trenholme, who served as the town’s delinquent tax collector (DTC) since 2008, was not reappointed to his position at the meeting. Instead, select board chairman Fred Saar moved to appoint Donna Berry, current assistant town clerk and assistant treasurer.
Vermont towns with a DTC generally elect them via a town-wide vote.
However, in 2018, Waterford voters decided at town meeting that their DTC should be appointed by the select board. This change came as Trenholme moved to Groton.
Trenholme has a record, by many accounts, of doing a good job.
His payment came when his efforts to collect overdue taxes were successful: an eight percent penalty is paid by the delinquent taxpayer in question, as well as interest. While the interest goes to the town, the eight percent penalty is for the DTC.
“Collecting taxes is not difficult or magical,” Trenholme told the Caledonian-Record in an interview on April 2. “I will tell anybody freely that the job can be done, it just often is not.”
Following Berry’s proposed appointment by Saar, an outcry ensued from multiple town residents including former select board member Gary Allard, who did not run again this year after 20 years of service on the school and select boards; planning board member Howard Remick; and state representative Marcia Martel.
Saar told attendees that the board is trying to move the DTC position in-house so that the town itself can benefit from the penalty.
However, Saar noted, for the eight percent penalty to go to the town, such a policy needs to be put to a vote at town meeting.
When asked by Remick why Trenholme could not retain his position until such a vote occurred, Saar and select board member Bill Piper stated that Trenholme has a contentious and unworkable relationship with town officials.
“We have disgruntled people in town, that rule the town, who do not like Gib and that’s what the problem is,” she said.
Piper took issue with that statement, saying it was not the main reason why the change was taking place.
“The select board has been involved more than we would have liked with disputes and cantankerous relationships between town employees and Gib,” said Piper. “Whose fault it is, I don’t care, I don’t care about the history of it, but it’s not workable.”
Remick and Allard said that the move to appoint Berry was against the townspeople’s wishes, though they noted it was the board’s right to appoint someone.
Allard told the board that their plan could backfire “as easily as it could go forward,” as a petitioned warrant article could bring the DTC back to being an elected position next March.
Piper responded that if citizens voted to go back to an elected DTC, it was fine with him.
“I just want the town government to run smoothly,” he said. “I think that having Donna as DTC will be an improvement. If it’s not, we’ll make a change.”
Following citizens’ complaints, the select board, including new member Warner Hodgdon, voted unanimously in favor of Berry’s appointment.
Allard, who served on the board until March 2 and was most recently its chair, said after the March 8 meeting that he did not remember ever hearing of any plan to bring the position in-house.
“I think Gib was totally treated wrong in the dismissal,” said Allard. “If there really, truly was a budgetary meeting that we had [on bringing the DTC position in-house], personally, I don’t remember it and I can’t find it, so I’m thinking it doesn’t exist.”
“Also, for somebody who served that long, they should have a little more respect for him and have at least notified him that they were not going to renew him,” Allard added.
Trenholme said he received the news he had not been reappointed via a letter received on March 13.
A copy of the letter obtained by the Caledonian-Record is dated March 11 and signed by Saar.
“Dear Gib: I am sure that by now you heard that the Select Board appointed Donna Berry to the post of Delinquent Tax Collector,” it begins. “The decision was based on our collective judgment as to what was best for the town. It was not a reflection on your competence, in fact, several members of the public commented on how well you know the job. Nevertheless, the board felt that it was time for a change and that we not have an opportunity to bring additional revenue to the Town.”
The letter adds, “We realize that you may not be pleased with our decision but hope that you understand how important it is that Town officials work harmoniously together for the benefit of the Town and its residents. We certainly appreciate your years of service and dedication to collecting delinquent taxes, particularly your resolution of the recent delinquency with Great River Hydro.”
Trenholme said on April 2 that it was well within the board’s right to appoint whomever they chose. However, he said their process in doing so was “wrong on many levels.”
Trenholme had heard nothing on his performance or on a potential move to an in-house DTC in an open meeting of the select board.
“I know a good deal about this topic, and I would have been happy to discuss the pros and cons of moving this position in-house,” he said.
“If you watch the recording [available on the board’s website], it is clear that this was already a done deal and that discussion was for the public, not the board,” Trenholme added.
On March 18, Trenholme filed public records requests with the town for a slew of documents, including any hearing, agenda or minutes that mention the DTC position, his name, Berry’s, or moving the collection of delinquent tax in-house.
He also requested any record of complaints about his conduct as well as all emails sent or received from any municipal computer for Jessy Pelow, Town Clerk, or Steve Eddy, former town treasurer, since March 2018.
On March 19, an emergency select board meeting was held to discuss the public records request, to which the town had three business days to provide a preliminary response.
At the emergency meeting, the board hired an attorney to make sure the town’s response was appropriate as well as handle contact with Trenholme, as Saar noted that Pelow and Berry have expressed concerns about Trenholme being in the office.
Trenholme, who was not aware of the emergency meeting, said on April 2 that he was upset to see himself disparaged and that he tries to conduct himself as professionally as possible.
“When people say otherwise, it’s very troubling to me,” he said.
The select board has hired Zuccaro and Willis, based in St. Johnsbury.
Jaime Murphy, who works the firm, told the Caledonian-Record that all of the requested documents have been provided to Trenholme other than the emails. Murphy said he was working with Trenholme to reduce the scope of the emails.
Trenholme confirmed that information on April 2, saying he initially believed he was not legally allowed to limit his email request with search terms, but was happy to create a less sizable request.
Trenholme said he served on the school board, as a zoning officer, and as the select board’s administrative officer before moving into his decade-plus position as DTC.
“I would like to see undocumented aspersions stop,” he said. “I am not saying anything that I cannot back up in spades and I wish they would show me the same respect.”
Eddy, who retired from his post as town treasurer on March 2, worked with Trenholme on a regular basis. Eddy started working for the town as an assistant clerk roughly four years ago and said he left his post as treasurer after three years because it was a good time to retire in terms of his personal life.
However, Eddy noted that stress in the town office was also a big part of his decision.
Eddy said he had no municipal experience before he started at the town offices and that there are a lot of guidelines and laws to follow as a town official. He said it was stressful trying to do his job as well as he could, especially when Trenholme knew more than Eddy did.
Eddy said he believed the select board wants whoever is in the DTC position to have better communication with the town office as well as to bring the penalty amount in-house. Eddy noted that Trenholme sometimes suffers the perennial issue many do: poor cell or internet service.
Eddy said he had not had any problems with the former DTC other than wanting to have prior notice if Trenholme was coming into the office in case Eddy was otherwise occupied.
“I value public service and I have always attempted a high standard,” said Trenholme on April 2. “I do tend to expect that of others and I don’t apologize for that.”
When asked about the public records request, Trenholme said he was “exploring his options.”
The select board, Berry and Pelow declined to speak on the record.
While the next regular Waterford select board meeting is scheduled for April 12 at 7:30 p.m., a special meeting will be held today, April 6, at 9 a.m. on Zoom. The agenda lists a highway budget meeting and highway grant projects.