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Former Vergennes alderman David Austin returns to city council

VERGENNES — Former four-term Vergennes City Council member and Planning Commission Chairman David Austin was the pick at last week’s council meeting to become the newest Vergennes alderman.
Austin and another candidate with a long record of public service in Vergennes, Faith Terry, had submitted letters of interest seeking appointment to fill the vacancy created by the February resignation of Mayor Michael Daniels.
Senior Alderman Renny Perry, as called for by the Vergennes city charter, assumed Daniels’ role through the end of his term, March 2019. Technically, therefore, the council appointed Austin to replace Perry, as is also outlined in the charter.
Perry is up for re-election with no opposition this Tuesday. Last week’s appointment will take effect after the election, and Austin will also serve until Town Meeting Day in March 2019.
The council made Austin’s selection in a unanimous public vote on Feb. 27 following a closed-door session. Perry said on Wednesday that council members believed both candidates to be qualified, but their decision hinged on Terry’s residency.
Although Terry owns a house and is registered to vote in Vergennes, Terry acknowledged to the council during its open session that she lives in Middlebury with her husband even though she considers the city to be her home and continues to work on its behalf.
Perry said council members respected her enthusiasm and background, which included playing major roles in the 1990s and early 2000s revitalization of the city’s downtown and restoration of the Vergennes Opera House and the Stone Block.
But as well as the council’s preference for having a council member live in Vergennes, Perry said there was also a question in the minds of council members whether Terry was legally qualified to sit on the council.
“She has been a proponent and cheerleader for Vergennes. There is no question where her heart is as far as doing something for Vergennes,” Perry said. “It has to do with whether she could serve.”
Perry acknowledged the laws are contradictory. Because Terry is registered to vote in Vergennes she is eligible to become a council member, Perry said, but another law states a vacancy is created when a selectboard or council member is “removed from town,” which he translated as meaning “someone does not live there anymore.”
Perry emphasized the decision did not mean council members thought Terry could not handle the position. 
“She is obviously a person who can do the job, so it’s not a question of whether she would be a good member of the city council. It really boiled down to residency,” Perry said.
At the same time Perry said council members felt the same way about Austin, who served four consecutive two-year terms on the council from 2004 to 2012.
Austin is the former owner of Main Street Footworks, still owns two downtown properties, and told the council he now works as a small business and real estate consultant, a career he said will allow him to manage his hours and devote time to city business.
Like Terry, Austin said he would not have been interested in serving on the council if he did not think its current members were doing a good job.
“You have a good, cohesive group,” Austin said.
Austin at the meeting touted his work in transitioning the city’s zoning board to a development review board and in helping the city obtain its Designated Downtown status, and he said his background will help the council with economic development issues and in the upcoming process of finding a replacement for retiring City Manager Mel Hawley.
In all, Austin said at the meeting, he is looking forward to being “an integral part of keeping things on track.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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