Bill Benton and April Jin vie to be next Vergennes mayor

VERGENNES — Vergennes voters will pick a new mayor in March, as Mayor Michael Daniels made good on his pledge made early in 2012 not to seek re-election for a fourth term.
City residents will also decide a four-way race for three city council seats among three incumbents and a former two-term alderman.
The marquee race for mayor will pit incumbent Alderman Bill Benton against former mayor and Alderwoman April Jin.
Benton won election to the council in 2012 as the top vote-getter in a four-way race for three seats. He has been an active member of the panel, including taking the lead in writing a policy on park displays that permitted the long-standing Christian crèche to remain there during the winter holiday season.
Jin was mayor from 2005 until 2007, when she lost her bid for re-election to Daniels, then a former multi-term alderman.
When she lost that race, Jin said she would retire from public life, at least once her terms ended as a Vergennes Union High School director (she served 15 years) and as a member of the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center board, including 14 years as its chairwoman.
Jin, who has also been involved with other high-profile community efforts, this week said that when she left those posts she wanted to focus her volunteering more on an individual basis, and she has since served as a mentor to John Graham Shelter residents, helped with Bixby Library book sales, and, more recently, has donated her time at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes.
“I was dealing very much with all these various boards and committees,” Jin said. “Philosophically, I decided in more recent times I wanted to contribute to the community one on one.”
But Jin said Alderwoman Ziggy Comeau last week approached her, concerned at that point no one had filed a petition for the soon-to-be vacant mayor’s job. Jin said she agreed with Comeau that residents should make the decision on who should be mayor, not the council by default.
Jin said it would be “a sad thing to see” if no one ran.
“Ziggy came to see me this past Thursday. She’d been kind of worrying … if anybody was going to run for mayor,” Jin said. “I hadn’t considered running until Thursday.” 
Jin said she would try to represent “the average person living here,” and said in the past six years she has “mellowed.”
“Not that I don’t have strong convictions. But it’s the ability … to come around to compromise and understand that everybody has the good of the city at heart,” Jin said.
She learned Benton would run after she filed, and looks forward to the race.  
“I’m glad Bill Benton turned in his petition,” Jin said. “I like Bill, I’ve known him for a long time.”
Benton is a self-employed real estate appraiser and the Middlebury town assessor. Born and raised in Vergennes, he lived in Waltham for a number of years before moving back several years ago to the city.
His background includes serving with, often in leadership roles, the Vergennes Partnership, Addison County Regional Planning Commission, Vergennes Board of Listers, Bixby Library board, Friends of the Vergennes Opera House, Boys and Girls Club of Greater Vergennes, and Vergennes Union High School Community Resource Council.
Benton said he almost decided to run by “default” when Daniels confirmed his 2012 decision not to run again and other members of the council said they could not find the time. He took out his petition on the Wednesday before Monday’s deadline, and at that point was the only contender.
“We all tried to get Mike to do it again and he just said no,” Benton said. “A few of us talked to each other about who could do it … and I was the only one who didn’t adamantly say no, because of their work commitments.”
Benton said he has faith in the current council and wanted to preserve its makeup as much as possible.
“I think we have a good board, and we are going in the right direction for the most part, and I don’t want to inject an unknown into the chemistry we have,” he said.
Benton said he would like to focus on some infrastructure projects, some of them called for in the city plan and others in the original downtown revitalization documents. He cited sidewalks, recreation improvements, and taking care of city buildings, including the fire station roof and the public works salt shed, and said the city’s Water Tower Fund could pay for some work.
“I don’t look at wholesale changes, but I would like to prioritize some projects and get them done,” he said.
As for Daniels, he said after six years it’s time for him to step away from the demands of taking care of the city while also working full-time.
“I’m just getting very tired. I feel like I’m running out of energy. I can’t give that 150 percent that I was giving, and I would really like to see somebody fresh,” Daniels said. “I’ll be there to help out … but I want ‘me’ time. So that’s what it’s all about, kick back a little bit, enjoy life.”
Daniels credited his wife, Judi, for being a full partner in what he called “a good crusade.”
“It’s been a hard effort. It took really two of us. I’ve always said, and I told Bill if he gets it, it’s two people, it’s a husband and wife team,” Daniels said.
The council race includes incumbents Randy Ouellette, who has served as senior alderman in recent years, Joe Klopfenstein and Peter Garon; and challenger Lowell Bertrand, who served on the board from 2008 to 2012.
Per the city charter, council candidates do not compete for specific seats — the top three vote-getters will be elected.
Bertrand was bumped from the board in the same 2012 election that saw Benton and former city manager Renny Perry win seats in their first try. He finished fourth in a five-person race for three seats, being edged out by Comeau.
Bertrand won election to the council in 2008 as a political newcomer. He has acknowledged a limited civic background before first running. A longtime United Technologies/Goodrich Aerospace employee, Bertrand works in what the company calls “configuration management,” ensuring proper procedures are followed when the firm releases drawings and documents to its clients.
Garon works in human resources for the Vermont Department of Corrections, has been a Vergennes Area Rescue Squad member and was formerly a Milton school director. Garon is a lifelong Vermonter who grew up in Newport. He ran unsuccessfully for the council in 2007 and 2008, earning more votes each time, before winning a seat in 2011 without opposition.
Klopfenstein, a veterinarian who specializes in dairy work, will be seeking his third term after initially being recruited by Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, when she left the council to pursue her Vermont House seat. Klopfenstein, who has lived in Vergennes for more than two decades, owns Vergennes Large Animal Associates and is the co-founder and former owner of the Vergennes Animal Hospital.   
Ouellette owned and operated R&K Woodworking on Panton Road, which he recently sold. He now works for the buyer of his business. He has lived in the Vergennes area for more than two decades, and has also been a St. Peter’s parish council member. First elected in 2005, when he ran unopposed, Ouellette has handily won re-election since.  
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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