Vergennes sees race for council

VERGENNES — In March, Vergennes residents could choose to replace half the members of the city council.
Three multi-term incumbents all filed for re-election before Monday’s deadline — David Austin, Lowell Bertrand and Clara “Ziggy” Comeau.
And just as many challengers also successfully petitioned to appear on the Town Meeting Day ballot, including two citizens who may need little introduction to most voters — former city manager Renny Perry and local appraiser and Vergennes Partnership president Bill Benton — and a political newcomer, Nelson Sears.
Per the Vergennes charter, challengers do not run for specific seats: The top three vote-getters will earn spots on the six-member council, over which Mayor Michael Daniels will preside. Daniels’ term does not expire until March 2013.
The candidates might disagree over specific issues, but all said they had a desire to serve — and that competition for the board of aldermen is a good sign for Vergennes.
“It’s good to have the interest,” said Perry. “That’s what democracy is built on.”
Austin, a downtown business and property owner, first won election to the city council in 2004. He is also a former member of the city’s planning and zoning boards.
He said he chose to run for a fifth term because residents asked him to and because he wanted to continue to “fight for what I believe is in the best interests of the city,” and do what he could to keep Vergennes an affordable place in which to live and do business.
Austin said in the past he has fought against proposals — such as the Vermont Electric Co. (VELCO) plan to run a power line through the city and another to run a city sewer line two miles into Ferrisburgh — that he thought would hurt Vergennes.
“I’m glad I’ve been here on a number of occasions over the past years when there have been issues that have come up that would have significantly negatively impacted the city, and I was a strong voice for the residents,” he said.
Austin said he would also like to stay on the council to help support Police Chief George Merkel’s efforts to combat substance abuse and traffic in the Vergennes area.
“That is probably the single biggest issue that will impact the city of Vergennes in a negative or positive way, and I’ll do anything I can to support the chief in that,” he said.
Benton is a real estate appraiser, the Middlebury town assessor, and a downtown Vergennes property owner. Born and raised in Vergennes, he lived in Waltham for a number of years before moving back to the Little City several years ago. If he wins a seat on the Vergennes City Council, he will follow in the footsteps of his father, a former alderman.
As well as the Vergennes Partnership, he has served or is serving on the Addison County Regional Planning Commission; the Vergennes Board of Listers; the Bixby Library board, which he served as chairman; the Friends of the Vergennes Opera House; Boys and Girls Club of Greater Vergennes board; and the Vergennes Union High School Community Resource Council.
Benton said he thought the time was right to attempt to expand his résumé to include alderman.
“I’ve been involved in lots of different things … and I have always thought about it,” Benton said.
Benton said he would like to work on ways to enhance the good things that he believes have occurred in Vergennes in the past 15 years.
“We’ve definitely come back in a positive fashion But I hear from people that things just seem to be kind of complacent, maybe, and some new ideas and some new blood would be good, and some people said, ‘Would you consider running,’” he said, adding, “I think there are some cost-effective things that could be put in place to make Vergennes more attractive to tourists and potential residents.”
Benton said he is not simply planning on shaking things up.
“I don’t have an agenda,” he said. “I don’t plan on going in there just to try to change things.”
Bertrand first won election to the council in 2008 as a political newcomer; he acknowledged a limited civic background before running for a seat.
A Goodrich Aerospace employee, Bertrand works in what the company calls “configuration management.”
“I make sure we follow proper procedures when we release drawings … and documents to clients,” he said.
Bertrand said his reason for seeking a third term is straightforward.
“I grew up in the town. I love the city. I just think I can do some more good,” he said.
Asked about issues and priorities, Bertrand stuck to finance.
“With the economy, I am worried about the people and the taxes,” Bertrand said. “I want to try to keep the taxes down the best we can. But with the economy the way it is, it’s tough for everybody. I guess I’d like to make sure we keep the status quo … and not try to go gung-ho on some new stuff that may (burden) the taxpayers more than we really should at this point.”
Comeau, a real estate broker and downtown property owner, was first appointed to the city council in 2005 after previously unsuccessfully running for a seat. Since then, Comeau, who also spent a half-dozen years on the city’s planning and zoning boards, has easily won three races to retain her office.
Comeau said she decided to run again to take care of unfinished business.
“There’s a lot of stuff we’ve started that I’ve been involved with, and I just want to follow through until it’s done, and a lot of it probably won’t be until the middle of this year,” she said.
She cited ongoing work at the Vergennes Opera House, but was most concerned with the upcoming official review of new zoning laws. The planning commission plans to hold its first hearing on the zoning rewrite in March; that rewrite is based on the most recent city plan, which was adopted in late 2009 after about a two-and-a-half-year process. When planners are finished with their hearing process, aldermen will weight in on the rewrite.
“The city plan is going to come before us, and I was involved with that, so I want to follow through with that and see where it leads us,” Comeau said. “There have been a lot of people who have gone off and come on, and I was one of the people who were on in the beginning, so I just want to see how it ends up.”
Perry, a Massachusetts native and former resident of Maine and New Hampshire, served a half-dozen year tenure as the Vergennes city manager that ended in 2008. He left that post to become Vermont’s director of trial court operations, a job he still holds.
Although his office is in Montpelier, Perry said he chose not to relocate.
“It would have been easier to move out of Vergennes for my job, but I love Vergennes,” he said.
Perry also worked as the city manager in Dover and Rochester, N.H., and Brewer, Maine, in all gaining 20 years of experience as a city manager, including his Vergennes stint. He also served on the city council in Dover and the town council in Hooksett, N.H., and was elected to one term as the mayor of Dover, a city of about 30,000.
He said he believes that background will enable him “to do a lot” for Vergennes.
“I just want to go in because I think I can offer something,” Perry said. “I can offer a lot of experience to guide Vergennes forward.”
Perry said even his challenging and enjoyable job has left him unfulfilled in one sense, and that led to his decision to run for the council.
“I miss being involved in the community,” he said, “and I miss giving back to the community.”
Sears is a fifth-generation Vermonter and 1975 Vergennes Union High School graduate who has lived and worked in Miami, Chicago and Costa Rica, with jobs including adult education teacher, actor, substance abuse counselor, and public relations, marketing, and community outreach professional.
He currently has three missions: caring for his elderly mother; serving as the office manager at the University of Vermont’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Advocate Center; and taking graduate classes in Higher Education Leadership at UVM. Sears is a former Lions Club member and belongs to the UVM President’s Staff Council.
Sears would like to see what can be done to bring more economic vitality to Vergennes.
“I remember the streets and shops full and things to do for children,” he said. “I’d like to see what, despite the down economic times, can be done to create incentives for or make it easier for small businesses or entrepreneurial companies to be located in town.”
The graying of Vergennes is also a concern, Sears said.
“On one hand we have an elderly population … and we have dwindling students in our schools,” he said. “I think that’s going to take a fresh pair of eyes to sort of mitigate that impact and look for some creative solutions.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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