Concerned citizens packed the Davies Memorial Library in Waterford on Monday evening for the select board’s regular monthly meeting, many of them expressing concerns about town governance and demanding answers.
Around 25 people attended, many of them standing throughout the hour-and-a-half meeting, which covered a variety of topics and featured regular tense exchanges — some of them openly antagonistic — between attendees and various town officials on topics including the town budget, town roads, the road crew and meeting minutes.
“There is no question that citizen involvement in town affairs is important: it’s valuable and it’s helpful,” said select board member Bill Piper on Tuesday evening. “But it has to be done in a constructive way. Some of last night was constructive and, in my view, some of it wasn’t.”
A petition calling for a full review of taxpayer funds, signed by around 80 Waterford residents and taxpayers and initially presented at the August select board meeting, was the subject of much commentary on Monday night. However, the petition was not on the agenda nor was it specifically discussed until the last fifteen minutes of the meeting.
Clem Gray, petition organizer, and Donna Berry, assistant town clerk and treasurer, spoke of discrepancies on what they had heard from the Secretary of State’s office regarding whether the petition needed to meet statutory requirements in terms of format and signatories. Town officials, including the select board, were of the understanding that the petition needed to be resubmitted in accordance with those rules before it was addressed by the board.
However, an email from Jim Condos, Vermont’s Secretary of State, copies of which were distributed to meeting attendees and confirmed to be authentic by Condos on Tuesday, indicates that this is incorrect — news to the select board and town officials.
“[Jean-Paul Isabelle, who works for the SOS’s office on campaign finance, legal and general inquiries] informed the clerk that since [the petition] was not a request for a vote, she was not obligated to check the signatures,” Condos wrote, adding that statute only requires the clerk to check for signatures on articles to appear on a warning for a vote.
“The wording [Berry] read to JP did not include the word ‘vote,’ so it didn’t seem to be an attempt by the petitioners to conform to the statute,” Condos continued. “They were simply trying to get attention to an issue they felt important by addressing the incorrect town official.”
“I do think that both JP and I could have been clearer in our replies to all,” Condos wrote.
Berry said on Tuesday that while she could not speak to Condos’ email, which she had just seen for the first time the previous night, statutory rules and their interpretation is often an issue.
“I’ve been doing local government for 27 years now,” she said. “You call the state and you talk to two different people and you’re going to get two different answers. How everybody interprets the law … it’s not a perfect science.”
“I don’t know that anybody is at fault,” Berry said. “I don’t know that this petition is as big an issue as anybody wants to make it. I think if they made it clear that they want the select board to hold a meeting, then that’s what they should do.”
Following the reading of Condos’ email at the select board meeting and a period of exchange between select board chair Fred Saar and Gray, resident Bryant Flemming piped up.
“I would like to remind everybody that this is the same sneaky group that went behind Gib Trenholme,” Flemming said.
“Sir, you bring that up one more time,” said Saar.
“I don’t think this is the place for threats,” said resident Roberta Gillott.
Tensions boiled over earlier this year when the former delinquent tax collector, Gilbert “Gib” Trenholme, was not reappointed to his position and several open meeting law violations were filed, discussed and rectified by the board, the Caledonian previously reported.
“Someone should resign over that,” said Flemming.
“Someone should get the true story,” replied Saar.
“Someone should actually figure out what’s going on and what happened before they start-” Saar continued, before being cut off by Flemming.
“You hired a lawyer to protect you,” Flemming said. “Evidently somebody knew, that’s why we’re asking.”
On March 19, during an emergency meeting, the board hired an attorney to make sure the town’s response was appropriate as well as to handle contact with Trenholme, the Caledonian previously reported.
“Set an inquiry for next month,” said Saar. “So we can get everything organized and make sure we do this correctly.”
Saar indicated that the petition as well as the delinquent tax collector issue would be on the agenda for the October meeting, to be held at the Davies Memorial Library on Oct. 11 at 7 p.m.
Following Saar’s statement, the meeting adjourned.
Saar and Warner Hodgdon, new to the three-member board this year following longtime select board member Gary Allard’s decision to not run again, declined to comment on the record on Tuesday.
While many who spoke during the meeting indicated their support of the petition and its intent to demand more transparency from town officials, Louis Brach, who identified himself as a Waterford taxpayer, disagreed.
“I don’t hang my dirty laundry out unless I know the details,” Brach said, mentioning the Aug. 10 article about the petition he read in the Caledonian-Record.
“Waterford has a low tax rate,” he continued. “Why? Because details are presented to the select board and discussed before a decision is made or public questions are entertained and they’re answered.”
“I think the select board is doing a darn good job,” Brach said, going on to express his concern about how much an inquiry would cost.
Several attendees, including Gillott and Justin Stahler, disagreed with Brach's characterization.
“Historically, the minutes of these meetings are pathetic,” said Gillott after speaking about a concern regarding tax increases over the past couple of years. “They [the minutes] give you very little follow-through.”
“I think that the citizens of Waterford, if we don’t have the luxury of being able to come to the select board meetings because of other commitments, then we should be able to be informed about what has happened,” she said, noting that she had recently read all the minutes from the past few years. “I think this is part of a real kind of endemic lack of transparency on the part of the town.”
Saar noted that the board has an opening for a select board clerk that they have been unable to fill.
“I’ve been here for 16 years,” replied Gillott. “You’ve had a number of people including a couple of town clerks taking notes and they have never been very informative.”
Stahler expressed his agreement with Gillott’s comments regarding the meeting minutes.
“In regards to the 75 people signing the petition, I don’t think there was any negligence there,” he added. “I think there were a lot of taxpayers in the town that were pretty knowledgable or had some knowledge of what was going on and they just saw an opportunity to improve and tighten up the budget.”
Saar thanked both Gillott and Stahler for their comments.
Following further discussion and questioning, Saar said that the town’s regular budget reports will be made available on the town website.