Fed up with city council, Mayor Daniels says he won’t be a ‘puppet’ and quits
VERGENNES — In an unexpected and unprecedented move, two-time Vergennes Mayor Michael Daniels resigned on Thursday, alleging in a statement a poor working relationship with the Vergennes City Council and citing a disagreement with council members on how a recent complaint against city hall employees was handled.
“I was told right at the beginning by several council members that we are all equal; stop running out in front and work with the council. I will no longer be a puppet,” read one sentence in Daniels’ statement.
Senior Alderman Renny Perry, who will serve as mayor until at least Town Meeting Day, said although the council and Daniels agreed on many issues, different points of view are inevitable.
Perry said Daniels, a longtime council member who also served three terms as mayor between 2007 and 2013, should have understood this when he successfully unseated Bill Benton a year ago.
“It really was a total surprise he would have done something like this. Councils aren’t there to agree with one another, including the mayor,” said Perry, once a mayor in New Hampshire as well as a former Vergennes City Manager. “That’s the way the process works.”
Perry takes over as mayor because the other members of the council picked him as senior alderman after he was re-elected two years ago, and because of the following clause in the Vergennes City Charter:
“In case of the absence, resignation or inability from any cause of the mayor, the duties of the office shall devolve on the senior alderman, chosen by city council, for the remainder of the mayor’s official term.”
But Perry’s two-year term expires in March: He is running unopposed for another two-year term on the council. According to City Manager Mel Hawley, after his re-election Perry may choose, as the sitting senior alderman, to fulfill the final year of Daniels’ term — or to accept another two-year term as alderman.
If Perry chooses to serve another two years on the council another state law takes effect: “When a vacancy occurs in any town office, the selectboard forthwith by appointment in writing shall fill such vacancy until an election is had.”
In other words, the council can choose another one of its members to fulfill Daniels’ term.
“The council would select who the mayor would be,” Perry said.
Perry said he is weighing many volunteer obligations and travel plans in his retirement against the commitment of being mayor.
“I given thought to it, but I haven’t made any decision,” Perry said on Friday morning.
While Perry and other said they were surprised by Daniels’ resignation, he said it was something that he had been weighing for a while.
“It’s not a snap decision by any means. I knew I had a target on my back from pretty much day one just after the election,” Daniels said on Friday.
Not long after he defeated Benton by four votes in March 2017, Daniels said one person told him that a council member said, “He’s not going to be there long.”
Daniels told the Independent that most of the council did not want to work with him, and “There have been times I have been told, ‘We want to work with you. We want you to succeed.’ But actions speak a lot louder than words.”
Daniels said he didn’t want to provide “a laundry list” of examples, but offered one. Daniels said he was “attacked” in emails after he re-wrote a council member’s anti-hate resolution last year. Daniels acknowledged he made it more specific to Vergennes and softened some language
“It downplayed it somewhat. But I didn’t think we needed to talk about events in South Carolina and other areas. What we needed to talk about was here in the state of Vermont. I also tried to reason with individuals at a council meeting that they needed to talk to individuals and find out facts before they made decisions or accusations about individuals. It had to do with flying the Confederate flag. Nobody wanted to reach out to the persons to find out what the purpose of their flag really was,” he said. “I try to operate on facts.”
On Friday morning Perry, who served as city manager during Daniels’ first tenure as mayor, said he had no personal issues with Daniels.
“I like him as a person,” Perry said. “And we have worked well with each other in the past.”
Perry said he was working on a statement in response to Daniels’ statement. Part of Perry’s statement addressed Daniels’ comments on the council:
“While we didn’t always agree I thought he was doing an OK job and certainly had the best interests of the city in mind. He cites in his resignation letter an uphill battle with the council. Well, councils aren’t there to always be in sync with the mayor or each other. There is a city council with seven members, including the mayor, who are there to represent the citizens as best they can and collaborate whenever possible to make the best decisions for the city and its citizens. Most of time we have reached consensus with each other and the mayor. It is the nature of the process to have debate and disagreement. I would have hoped the mayor would have understood that from the outset.”
Daniels also criticized the council’s handling of a recent formal complaint from a downtown business owner against City Manager Mel Hawley and City Clerk Joan Devine. He cited that issue both in his Thursday statement and in his Friday comments.
His statement read, “One answer is to tell the complainant that this issue was dealt with. But was it? Does everyone have all the facts from both sides? I know of only three members of the city council that have talked with the City Manager and City Clerk, but yet everyone wants this situation to go away. I have never operated that way and refuse to start now. Due diligence has not been done to the employees or the citizen.”
Daniels said on Friday nothing has been done to clarify “real inconsistencies based on emails forwarded to me from both sides,” adding, “There are other inconsistencies in statements made by the former mayor and the senior alderman to do with a previous complaint and something that was said in a meeting of the three of them.”
Daniels criticized council members for the way they want to handle the complaint.
“It’s been presented a couple times that the message should go back to the complainant that, yes, we have received your complaint, that we have dealt with it, and that’s the end of the story,” Daniels said. “And to me that’s an inadequate response.”
Daniels said the complaint should be dealt with at this week’s meeting in an “open and transparent” manner.
“I was recommending it was going on this agenda, and Senior Alderman Perry did not want it on this coming agenda. He thought it should be dealt with outside of the council meeting. And to me that is not transparency,” he said.
“It was the proverbial final straw,” Daniels said of the entire situation.
Perry said he and other council members have a different view.
“The mayor should be careful where he is pointing the blame. Had the mayor taken the lead in meeting the complainant as the complainant had wanted perhaps there would have been no reason for the council to have been involved,” Perry said. “I feel he could have done more in the mayoral position to talk with the complainant and see if this could be resolved.”
Perry said at this point he believes the complaint can still be resolved among the parties with help from the mayor and/or council members.
“The reason I didn’t want it on the agenda is that I thought there was a way we could have it resolved without having it on the agenda, basically,” Perry said. “If there was some way for the council members or the mayor to continue to meet and talk with the complainant, maybe we could get this resolved. And if we couldn’t then it does become a whole council issue.”
Daniels acknowledged his resignation probably lets down those who voted for him, but said he felt he was just unable to continue.
“I am disappointed in myself. I’m retired. I want to do good. I want to make the world a better place. And I want to do it in a positive manner. And everything that is coming out now is negative, and I don’t need the hassle,” he said. “I apologize to them for letting them down. They don’t know the impact this job is having on me mentally and physically.”
Daniels’ parting message was to encourage residents to participate in their hometown’s affairs:
“A word to the citizens of Vergennes: They need to become more involved.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]
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