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Addison official denies claims in harassment, discrimination suit

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Posted on March 20, 2014 |
By Andy Kirkaldy



ADDISON — The chairman of Addison’s selectboard denied allegations leveled against the town of Addison, himself and his wife contained in a civil suit that was filed on March 5 in Addison Superior Court by two town residents.

The lawsuit, filed by an attorney for Barbara Ernst and Barbara Supeno, alleges that selectman and former zoning administrator Jeff Kauffman, his wife, Addison property owners and South Burlington residents John and Linda Carrigan, and the town discriminated against the plaintiffs in a series of zoning actions; harassed, threatened and defamed them; and that “neighbors’ attempts to drive Ms. Ernst and Ms. Supeno out of town were openly abetted by several town officials.”

At least in part, the lawsuit alleges, Ernst and Supeno, who are described therein as a couple for the past 21 years, faced that discrimination and harassment because of their sexual orientation.

The lawsuit states, “Various illegal and discriminatory enforcement decisions by the town constitute governmental favoritism toward one group of town residents, while at the same time denying common benefits to similarly situated members of an oppressed community, i.e., gays and lesbians.”

The suit seeks a jury trial on all the issues and “money damages” from the defendants. Ernst and Supeno bought their Addison lakefront home in 2004.

Kauffman, whose comments were made in a series of emails, said he was “sickened by the accusations against the town, myself and my wife.”

Kauffman, who has served as chairman of the Addison selectboard for the past several years, said the town has not discriminated against Ernst and Supeno.

“I don’t believe that sexual orientation has anything to do with the way the town does business, nor has the town engaged in any activities to drive the plaintiffs out of this town,” Kauffman said. “On the contrary, Barbara Supeno has served in an appointed office (Alternate to the Addison County Regional Planning Commission) for the past couple years.”

The lawsuit points to Kauffman’s service as pastor of the Hope Community Fellowship, a Baptist Church. It claims that, “Until recently, the webpage for Mr. Kauffman’s church linked to several faith-based anti-gay websites” that call homosexuality, among other things, “unnatural and animalistic wickedness.” It also claims that Kauffman has privately expressed anti-gay views.

Kauffman rejected those assertions.

“My faith is always a part of who I am, and causes me to treat all people fairly and with dignity,” he said. “For that reason, I can say that I have never ‘unreservedly expressed hatred for gays and lesbians.’ I don’t know what private conversation they may be referring to in that regard.”

OTHERS NAMED

The lawsuit also accuses Kauffman’s wife, Carol, and the Carrigans of defaming Ernst and Supeno, in part with materials that they allege can only have come from Jeff Kauffman.

Ernst and Supeno in May 2010 filed a civil rights discrimination complaint against the town via the Vermont Human Rights Commission. The commission referred the complaint to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Ernst and Supeno withdrew that complaint in February 2011, but not until after a December 2010 mediation meeting with Jeff Kauffman.

The suit claims confidential material from that meeting was used in an anonymous nine-page “Addison Wikileaks” letter mailed in April 2011 to many residents. It states that letter defamed the plaintiffs and damaged their business relationships in Addison.

The suit makes the same claims about a 20-page statement that it says John Carrigan was improperly allowed to read to the selectboard in November 2011.

The suit claims the handwriting for the addresses on the Wikileaks letter matches Carol Kauffman’s handwriting. That letter, included as an exhibit, purported to tell “The TRUTH about the Barbaras” and alleged past financial and legal improprieties and called them “duplicitous” and “diabolical.”

Jeff Kauffman said he only received the Wikileaks letter in the mail, and that his wife would not send an anonymous letter. He also said he was confident he and Addison would have prevailed in the first complaint.

“Anyone who knows my wife knows that she is not afraid to sign her name to anything she writes. She had had no part in this. All of the matters mentioned in the suit are public record and easily accessible to any who want to know the whole story,” he said. “The only part that is not public record at this point is that this is the second ‘trial’ on these grounds and the first one was going to go in favor of the town and myself.”

Ernst and Supeno’s newer lawsuit called the HUD process “a toothless inquiry, conducted by an investigator who appeared to share the anti-gay bias of many in the Town.”

The Carrigans could not be immediately reached for comment. They are not listed in the phone book, and a number in a zoning file at the Addison town office was no longer in service. The Independent sent a letter on Tuesday to their listed South Burlington address and hopes to receive comment at some point.

DISCRIMINATORY ACTIONS?

The lawsuit makes several claims that town officials treated Ernst and Supeno differently than their neighbors, all of whom live in a lakefront area in which many pre-existing homes do not conform to current zoning and rest on small grandfathered lots that also do not conform.

Zoning in that area has been problematic, and waiver language in new zoning regulations designed to address the difficulty owners face in improving their properties has been debated in recent years.

The lawsuit claims that Addison and its officials:

•  Illegally allowed plaintiffs’ neighbors to expand uses on their properties, but harassed plaintiffs for legal uses, including for a privacy fence and a handicap ramp they said should have been exempt from zoning setbacks. The plaintiffs claimed the town attempted to fine them for the fence for being non-conforming without ever measuring it, and the town eventually dismissed the complaint.

•  Raised the assessed value of their property by 300 percent, compared to 50 percent for other properties in their lakefront neighborhood.

•  Consistently failed to notify them of zoning hearings for neighboring properties, as required by law.

Kauffman, who served as zoning administrator from 2008 to 2012, was asked about that allegation.

“I know we have made zoning mistakes, but I am unsure of that one,” he said.

•  Failed to clean the spray-painted message “I ♥ FAGS” from the town office parking lot for almost two years.

•  Falsely claimed their dog was barking and harassed them over several days over the issue. According to the lawsuit, their dog was “not barking. It was at that time almost 17 years old and paraplegic with partially paralyzed vocal chords.”

PROCEEDINGS

According to the plaintiffs’ attorney, it will be up to two years before the case is heard. By March 25, the defendants must respond in writing to the complaint, said David Bond of Burlington, and they could also file a motion to dismiss.

A successful motion to dismiss could wrap up the case more quickly, but Bond said he is confident the case will move forward.

“If the defendants file a motion to dismiss in response to the complaint, briefing would be complete on that in a little over two months,” Bond said in an email. “The court then might schedule a hearing, but probably wouldn’t issue any decision until at least a couple of months after that. That said, I don’t expect to see a motion to dismiss, at least not one that has any merit.”

If the case goes to trial, the longer time frame is more probable, he said, with a jury draw following discovery and depositions.

“Likely we will be picking a jury some time about a year and a half to two years from now,” Bond said.

A third possibility exists.

“The vast majority of cases settle before reaching trial,” Bond wrote. “I have no idea whether this case will settle or not, as we’re only in the most preliminary stage right now.”

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]

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