Vergennes City Council to add a new member April 9; candidates emerge

VERGENNES — Vergennes city council members at their meeting last week said they will almost certainly fill the vacancy on the council at their April 9 meeting, and two candidates have emerged for the vacancy created when Alderman Bill Benton won a race for mayor on March 5.
Former alderman Peter Garon had already expressed an interest before Tuesday’s meeting. On Wednesday, Vergennes real estate broker Lynn Jackson Donnelly confirmed that she, too, would like to be appointed to serve the final year of Benton’s term, which will expire in March 2014. Both attended last week’s meeting.
Benton, running his first meeting since his election, asked all other interested candidates to submit a letter to City Clerk Joan Devine with their background and reasons for wanting to serve.
City Manager Mel Hawley said those letters should be received by this Thursday to allow him to include the letters in the packet he will send to aldermen in advance of their April 9 meeting.
Garon served a two-year term that expired in March, but lost a four-way race for three seats on March 5. He is a 10-year city resident who has retired from a long career working for the state as a human resources administrator; he now works for the Vermont State Employees Union as a labor educator. He has served on boards and rescue squads in other towns and as a Vergennes Area Rescue Squad president. 
Jackson Donnelly is a lifelong resident of the Vergennes area who is the principal broker of Century 21 Jack Associates. She recently returned to Vergennes after living in Panton, where she served on the town selectboard, including as its chairwoman. She also has an extensive community service résumé.
The exact process for the council to choose their new colleague from among those two and any other candidates remains up in the air.
Hawley said the Vergennes charter calls for a vacancy to be “forthwith filled by the appointing authority,” a statement that he said means aldermen must act promptly.
Alderman Renny Perry said that also elsewhere councils cast ballots in secret before announcing the winner. Hawley said he would research whether Vergennes aldermen would have to go on public record with their votes.  
Regardless of how the vote is handled, Garon suggested a “public interview process” to allow for “more transparency,” a suggestion aldermen viewed favorably.
But they did not agree last week on whether the candidates should all be asked the same set of questions — as suggested at the meeting by former mayor Mike Daniels — or whether the interview should be more free-flowing.
Alderwoman Ziggy Comeau made a recommendation that was well received — simply giving each candidate a few minutes to make his or her case.
“You can let each of them speak,” Comeau said.
Alderman Joe Klopfenstein said after those presentations the council could then ask “clarifying questions” of the candidates.
Benton said he and Hawley would work out a process and discuss it with the council before April 9.
“We’ll try to come up with something that is fair and not take two hours,” Benton said.
Aldermen also last week voted to ask a warning to be prepared for their April 9 meeting that would call for a $1.45 million bond vote to support a $1.55 million police station project on North Main Street; that issue was covered in the March 28 Independent.  
On conclusion of discussion of the police station, Alderman Klopfenstein made a statement that it was crucial for citizens to trust the council, and for aldermen to trust and support each other, act as a team and back group decisions.
“It’s very important we uphold that decision, especially if it is unanimous, publicly and privately,” he said.
Afterward, Klopfenstein said he was not pleased that Comeau, also a member of the council’s police station committee, had allegedly campaigned against aldermen’s $1.85 million Town Meeting Day police station proposal after voting for it as a member of council.
Reached later in the week, Comeau said she had not actively lobbied against the proposal.
“I didn’t say one way or another on it. I didn’t campaign against it, knock on doors or anything,” she said.
Comeau did acknowledge that if people “approached me concerned with their taxes,” she told them they had the right to vote against the plan.
“Of course, I have a lot of seniors who talk to me, and that’s what I tell them,” she said.
If people asked her about the size and scope of the project before the vote, Comeau said her response was, “I said they’re planning ahead for the future,” adding, “I was trying to be careful about how I said it.”
Comeau said she encouraged all she spoke to to vote.
“I did say we have to know how you feel … because that’s a big project,” she said.
Aldermen last week also:
•  Tabled a vote for senior alderman until the council vacancy is filled. Randy Ouellette has served as senior alderman in recent years. The senior alderman serves the remainder of the mayor’s term if the mayor steps down.
•  Voted to seek “intervener” status before Public Service Board deliberations on the Vermont Gas Systems’ application for a Certificate of Public Good for its Addison County natural gas pipeline project. Hawley said that status would allow Vergennes to negotiate with Vermont Gas how the pipeline runs in Vergennes and how city residents are served.
•  Adopted Robert’s Rules of Order for boards and committees, a move that will mean a slight departure from past council procedure. In the past, mayors have generally not fully participated in discussions and only cast tie-breaking votes. The Robert’s Rules specific to boards allow board chairpersons to participate in discussions and vote.
•  Heard from Hawley that Encore Redevelopment Inc. “is in the design phase” for a solar array project to be built near the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
•  Reappointed Cheryl Brinkman as the city’s representative to the Addison County Solid Waste Management District, Christine Bradford as the council’s representative on the Bixby Memorial Library board, the entire city recreation committee, and Mike Daniels and Craig Miner as the co-chairmen of the town’s Green Up Day effort.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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