With a population that hovers around 100, and a voter checklist of about 70, Searsburg is one of the state’s smallest towns. But small town government doesn’t necessarily mean small problems.
Residents in the tiny mountain town are up in arms over a series of actions taken by selectboard members. The controversy came to a head at a selectboard meeting on January 8, which more than 20 members of the public attended. At more than half the number that usually attend Town Meeting, the number was a sizeable percentage of the town’s voting population.
According to minutes of the meeting, which were anonymously mailed to every resident in the town, the controversy includes allegations of illegal and improperly warned meetings and decisions, vote-stacking by two members of the three-member board, abuse of authority, and even fisticuffs between selectboard members.
Searsburg resident Denise Foery kicked off the public comment portion of the meeting by reading a letter in which she called the board to task over a number of issues, including a dog complaint the board failed to resolve to her satisfaction.
When Foery reported that another resident’s dogs had harassed her family’s pet rabbits, selectboard chair Stan Florence had declined to act on the complaint because there had been no witness testimony. Instead, the board directed Foery and the owner of the dogs to resolve the issue in the hallway outside the meeting room. Foery says the board’s action forced her into an uncomfortable confrontation over the issue.
“A reasonable expectation would be for the selectboard to enforce the leash law that we have in Searsburg by imposing a fine to the dog owners and requiring compliance to the law in the future,” Foery says, “and warn them that if they did not comply, the dogs would be removed for the safety of the neighbors and the animals in Searsburg.”
Foery, and other residents, also questioned the board about the use of town equipment to plow the driveway of a local residence to provide a place for a taxi that carries schoolchildren to turn around. The driveway belongs to a family member of the selectboard chair. When questioned by voters at the meeting, Florence said the decision, made by only two of the board members, occurred at an emergency selectboard meeting.
School board chair Tammy Hollister says her board was researching the ethics and legality of using town equipment and personnel to plow a private drive for student safety, and had asked board member Walt Kenney to look into the question. Hollister, who has served on a number of public and private boards, says selectboard members are not following accepted standards for public meetings. “Unfortunately, Stan (Florence) and (selectboard member) Jim Day took it upon themselves to demand that the road crew plow it,” she says. “If they’re going to do this, they have to follow the Vermont Open Meeting Law and Robert’s Rules of Order.”
But one of the most shocking allegations may be that of an altercation in which Florence struck Kenney in the chest with a chair during an argument at the town garage. Although the discussion at the meeting appeared to confirm that some kind of altercation between the two occurred, board members refused to publicly comment on the incident.
Searsburg resident Gary Sage notes that Kenney has been excluded from a number of discussions and decisions. At another emergency selectboard meeting earlier this week, the board adopted new rules of procedure that limit the public comment period at board meetings to five minutes. When the chair handed out the proposed rules, Sage says, Kenney was the only board member who appeared to be unfamiliar with them. “I think the purpose was to put a gag on the public,” he says.
Voters also questioned the board over meetings they’ve held to negotiate with PPM Energy, the company that has proposed the installation of new wind turbines in Searsburg. In a nonbinding vote at a special town meeting last year, residents voted not to support PPM’s proposal.
Some residents say the board is breaking faith with voters by negotiating, and they expect the board to actively oppose the project. Sage says, no matter the board’s negotiating strategy, the board has not been legally authorized to negotiate with PPM by the voters.
Sage says he and other residents have been frustrated in their attempts to convince the board to follow what they the feel are established and legal procedures by a lack of enforcement.
Voters can change the board as board members’ terms expire, he notes, but there’s no method of “impeachment” or any state authority that will censure the board. “They’re breaking statutes left and right,” he says. “They’ve been having meetings outside of meetings. But there’s no one you can call. We just want them to work together.”
None of the selectboard members were available or had returned calls as of press time.
By Mike Eldred
24 January 2008
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