MIDDLEBURY — In a stunning and unexpected move, Middlebury selectboard Vice Chairman Victor Nuovo resigned from his position on Jan. 2, the same day on which he and his colleagues were slated to discuss a conflict of interest complaint that had been lodged against him by a group of local citizens.
Nuovo cited the conflict allegations as the reason for stepping down from a post he has held for the past eight years. The complainants had alleged that Nuovo should have recused himself from voting on, as well as participating in discussion on, a series of topics at a Dec. 17 selectboard meeting pertaining to the construction of new town offices and a recreation center. Middlebury College is the prospective participant in a transaction with the town through which the community would net $5.5 million to be used in site preparation and financing of the two new buildings. Nuovo is a retired professor emeritus of philosophy at the college, an association the complainants argued should have required him to recuse himself in voting on matters relating to the building projects.
Nuovo, 82, has argued that since his title with the college is symbolic and because he is not on the college payroll, he should be free to discuss and weigh in on town-gown matters.
But the complainants — several of whom are on the record in opposing the current proposal to build new town facilities away from their current spot at 94 Main St. — pointed to the town’s conflict of interest policy that requires public officials to disclose their associations with entities involved in town matters and recuse themselves from participating in such votes.
In the end, the very public and sometimes acrimonious dispute became too much for Nuovo.
“The comedy of errors surrounding my alleged conflict of interest has prevented me from performing my duties as a selectman, and it has become a cause of distraction for the selectboard and the town,” Nuovo wrote in a three-paragraph letter to selectboard Chairman Dean George just hours before a special meeting at which the conflict of interest complaint was to be heard.
“These circumstances are enough to justify my decision. Contending against futility is not a virtue. I have the power to remove an impediment and I am doing it. And I would remind my colleagues on the selectboard that, whatever their individual preferences and dispositions, they have a duty to ensure that the voters of the town of Middlebury have the opportunity to vote on the town offices/recreation facility project.”
During a telephone interview on Friday, Nuovo reiterated his hope that his resignation would allow the board to proceed unencumbered in planning for a March 4 vote on a $6.5-million town office-recreation center project.
“The main issue is that I was a distraction,” Nuovo said of the challenges. “And I saw no point in continuing on a board where I could no longer fully function as a member.”
Nuovo believes the conflict of interest complaints were lodged in an effort to undermine planning for the current project, which has drawn criticism from some residents and praise from others. That project, among other things, calls for construction of a new municipal building at 77 Main St. and a new recreation center off Creek Road. It also calls for the current town office/gym site at 94 Main St. to be turned over to Middlebury College and made into a park. Some critics have charged that the plan has been too hastily conceived and also argue the community should instead replace or rehab its current facilities on-site.
“Their strategy was to stall the process, and I think it was a clever strategy,” Nuovo said of the complainants.
“I think we were out-witted, but not out-smarted.”
Selectboard Chairman Dean George was saddened by Nuovo’s decision.
“I certainly, on behalf of the board, want to wish him well and we will continue to cherish his friendship and guidance in the future as we go forward,” George said. “I am truly saddened that a colleague of ours, who has for many years served this community well and has acted in its best interests, is leaving before his elective term ends. Recent personal attacks on the character of selectboard members is unwarranted and no board member deserves to be treated in that manner. I hope as we start a new year, those choosing to express their thoughts and opinions can do so in a civil and respectful manner.”
A MATTER OF POLICY
The filers of the complaint maintained they were motivated solely out of a desire to see the selectboard abide by the letter of their own conflict of interest policy. Residents Ron Kohn, Barbara Shapiro, Virginia Heidke, James Spannbauer, Ben Burd, and Alice Eckles signed the complaint. That policy, they argued, required Nuovo to disclose his association with the college and not discuss or vote on these three items that the board decided at its Dec. 17, 2013, meeting:
1. A term sheet outlining the foundation for an agreement between the town and college leading to the two new buildings. Nuovo discussed this issue but recused himself from voting on it.
2. A decision to accept an ad hoc steering committee’s recommendation to locate the new recreation center on a parcel off Creek Road. Nuovo discussed and voted on that matter.
3. A citizen’s request to place an advisory referendum on the Town Meeting Day ballot on keeping the municipal building/gym at their current location. Nuovo discussed and voted on that proposal, which the board ultimately rejected. The citizen, Michael Olinick, has decided to circulate a citizens’ petition to get the referendum on the ballot.
Kohn spoke on behalf of the complainants at Thursday’s meeting.
“I don’t know Victor; he seems to be a nice enough fellow,” Kohn told the board. “The rules, though, require certain behaviors of all of you, and they aren’t being followed in the aggregate.”
Kohn noted the board in October found a conflict of interest in two of its members — Nuovo and Selectwoman Susan Shashok — voting on an initial draft of the town-gown term sheet for the municipal building and recreation center projects. Shashok’s spouse, Alan, worked for a business partly owned by the college. He has since left that business’s employ.
Kohn argued that Nuovo should have not been a party to discussion about the projects when the issue resurfaced at the Dec. 17 meeting.
“Victor was permitted to speak and vote on three issues related to the college deal,” said Kohn, who said he was not at that meeting but reviewed it on tape.
“I think all of you are responsible for enforcing your own rules,” he said.
Olinick was also present at Thursday’s meeting. He acknowledged being a Middlebury College employee and longtime member of the town’s Board of Civil Authority, which hears assessment disputes. Olinick said he has recused himself on participating in assessment appeals brought by the college and said he believed Nuovo had the same responsibility when it came to the college matters coming before the selectboard.
Resident Ross Conrad said he believed that while Nuovo did not stand to gain financially from his votes related to the town offices/recreation center matter, his association with the college — per terms of Middlebury’s conflict of interest policy — “indicates that he should be treated as if he had a conflict.”
Resident Dawn Saunders said town officials have a duty to be very careful in how they conduct business.
“What matters is appearance,” Saunders, a former public official, said. “It’s the nature of the beast that appearance is going to be a different issue for different participants in a discussion.”
Shapiro said the complaint should not be taken personally.
“I just wanted to say, for myself, that this isn’t and never has been about an attack on character whatsoever; this has always been strictly about the rules,” Shapiro said. “There has been nothing about any personal issue whatsoever. I have a great deal of regard for Victor Nuovo’s service to this town and I really want to make that plain.”
“It is not a personal attack on anyone,” Burd said. “I think (Nuovo) has done great service for the community and has spent a great deal of time as an educator … I have nothing personally against him. It was a matter of following the rules and that’s what my objection was about.”
Selectman Craig Bingham said he believes members should err on the side of caution on potential conflict cases.
“If this body was the board of directors of a corporation and we were negotiating a contract with another corporation with which one of our board members had a close association, that board member would have a duty to advise us of that association and to recuse themselves from the discussion and vote on any matter involving that corporation,” Bingham said.
WELCOME TO PARTICIPATE
But some speakers at Thursday’s meeting were clearly distressed about the complaint and its impact on Nuovo.
“I would hope that any citizen, no matter their affiliation with anything, would have a right to speak,” resident and Planning Commission Chairwoman Nancy Malcolm said. “I would certainly hope that anybody would be welcome to participate and to exclude them from speaking and providing some valuable information is going way beyond what any conflict of interest (policy) is meant to be.”
Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, also weighed in on the issue. He said he and others elected Nuovo knowing of his past employment with the college and perceiving that as a desirable qualification.
“We knew he was held in high regard by the college,” Ralston said. “In making your decision you need to make sure not to disenfranchise me and the hundreds of others who voted for someone knowing that they had access and influence. Victor had brought tremendous resources to our town through his relationship with the college and that has been a very good thing for us as taxpayers.”
Former Middlebury Selectman John Tenny said he did not see a conflict of interest in Nuovo’s participation in the town offices-recreation center discussion and votes because local residents will become the final arbiters of the projects on Town Meeting Day.
“The board here is not making a decision here on a move forward; it is making the decision on what to propose for the voters to consider, and only that,” Tenny said. “All actions that you take here are then subject to the consideration and approval or disapproval of the voters.
“Personally, I see these well-discussed issues of conflict more as a distraction and a diversion rather than anything of substance,” Tenny added.
Selectman George asked for a show of hands on each of the three matters brought up in the complaint. After some deliberation, the board voted 5-1, with Selectman Gary Baker opposed, to reconsider the town-gown term sheet at its upcoming Jan. 14 meeting because Nuovo had participated in the board’s discussion on the matter back on Dec. 17. The board voted 5-1, with Bingham opposed, to uphold the board’s vote on the Creek Road location; and it voted 4-2, with Bingham and Shashok opposed, to uphold the board’s vote relating to a referendum on keeping the town offices and gym at their current location.
The board is getting a legal decision on whether it should appoint an interim replacement for Nuovo until Town Meeting Day, at which time the final year left on his three-year term will be up for grabs. George said he will run for that single-year term and not for re-election to his three-year term, which is expiring. Selectman Craig Bingham’s term is also up in March. The Independent will report on the field of candidates that emerge for the selectboard and other civic posts when nominations close later this month.
Shashok said she understood Nuovo’s difficult decision. Shashok announced last month that she would be resigning from the town’s parks and recreation subcommittee in protest of the selectboard’s decision to pick the Creek Road site for a recreation center before her panel had had a chance to review the locations that were in contention.
“I relate strongly to Victor’s announcement last night. We faced conflict of interest charges together and both chose to resign from town boards that have held our attention and dedication,” Shashok said. “My friends and supporters have respected my decisions because they balance what is best for the town with what is best for my family. I have no doubt that Victor has done the same and I will miss him at the table.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor Angelo Lynn weighs in with his opinion on this issue in an editorial in today's edition.
See Nuovo's resignation letter here.