Matt Chabot to leave as city manager
VERGENNES — After a little more than a year on the job, Vergennes City Manager Matt Chabot informed the city council on Oct. 15 that he would be stepping down.
Chabot’s contract calls for 90 days notice, but Mayor Jeff Fritz said he is optimistic a new manager can be found more quickly this time around despite the challenges a year ago in finding a replacement for then City Manager Mel Hawley (see related story.)
Chabot, 54, said he has agreed to return to Vergennes property management and development firm Burchfield Management Company LLC.
Chabot previously worked at Burchfield for company owner David Shlansky for three years before essentially volunteering his services as city manager in August 2018; he began work on Aug. 31, 2018. He was also a member of the Vergennes City Council when he forwarded his résumé to Fritz.
Chabot’s decision to throw his hat in the ring came as a relief to city officials after two searches produced one finalist in May and three in August, all of whom withdrew for reasons that ranged from a serious illness developing in a family to another job being offered first.
His 25 years of management experience also includes stints as the general manager of Burlington’s downtown Town Center Mall, chief operating officer of the Redstone commercial real estate firm, customer and employee relations director of Vermont Teddy Bear Company, and store manager and vice president of the Burlington Macy’s department store.
Chabot said on Monday he never planned to make a lengthy stay in the public sector, but was happy to work for the city over the past year.
“I had never aspired to work in municipal government,” he said. “When the two municipal search committees had struggled to find a candidate last year, with Mel’s pending retirement, I figured I could do the job. And I’m not disappointed to say that I think I was able to do the job. But it was never going to be forever. It was really to assist the city in this transition. That’s where I am. I very much enjoyed the work. The staff has been great. I think we’ve accomplished a great deal.”
Fritz said he appreciated Chabot stepping forward, and the job he has done.
“We had had three candidates who backed out at the last minute, three very qualified candidates. And Matt sort of stepped in and said, ‘I think I can do this,’ and he did,” Fritz said. “And he was very clear with us that it wasn’t a lifetime position for him. Which is not to say he was necessarily doing it as a favor to us. It was something he thought he was competent and able to do, and he did that.”
Fritz does not begrudge Chabot his decision to return to Burchfield, but said he was sad to learn he would leave.
“I think Matt is an incredibly qualified city manager and has done some great things for the city, and he has been an absolute delight for me to work with. He was the right person for me to learn some of the skills I needed as mayor, so I’m very grateful for that,” Fritz said. “I’m disappointed to see him go.”
In the past year Vergennes has continued to earn grants; job descriptions have been written that Fritz said will make it easier to replace Chabot and longtime City Clerk Joan Devine, who will step down after February; and Chabot said early indications are positive on the recently completed audit.
Chabot reflected on his year in office.
“Mentally, I had three kind of hurdles. One was town meeting, the other being budget, and the third being the audit. And we completed the audit at the beginning of October. And although we don’t have any results, the auditors said we were doing great. So I feel like I’ve gotten through a year’s cycle, and now I’m in a position to hand the reins over to next individual,” he said.
The budget proved to be the greatest challenge, both Chabot and Fritz acknowledged. There were difficulties in pinning down the fund balance remaining from the 2018-2019 fiscal year, and Hawley came out of retirement to help finalize the number.
Chabot’s proposal to trim the police department staffing and spending, something he said was necessary to free up funding for other priorities while keeping the municipal tax rate in check after health care costs rose $94,000, also drew residents’ fire at a series of council meetings.
A majority of council members initially supported the police cuts, but after public support for police and complaints that officers did not receive enough notice that their jobs would be lost, the council ultimately supported a tax rate that allowed the department to remain whole. The council is now undergoing a department-by-department budget review in preparation for 2020-2021 budget discussions; the police force was on the table at this Tuesday’s meeting.
Chabot was asked about this past June’s budget process.
“All things are learning experiences. I would have done it differently. But the issues that face Vergennes from a budget standpoint will face Vergennes for years to come. As a business manager I was seeking to provide a budget that would not increase property taxes,” Chabot said. “And ultimately I work for the board, I work for the aldermen, and they made the decision they made, and as their manager I support their decision.”
Fritz noted the changing minds on the council, and said it was “hard to say” if voices at the public meetings spoke for a majority of residents.
“That was a very thoughtful budget presentation that he made, and I was disappointed he did not get more support,” the mayor said.
Chabot sat on the council for more than two years before putting his résumé forward in August 2018.
Would he serve as an alderman again?
“I’ve been asked. The short answer is no. The long answer is not right now,” Chabot said. “I’m going to take a break. I enjoyed my time on the council. I enjoyed my time as city manager. I’m going to take a little step back for a little bit. I’ll be available to assist the council and the new manager in the transition.”
Fritz hopes that transition can begin before the end of 2019, in part because Chabot has helped clarify the duties of city hall personnel.
“That’s one of the biggest things we accomplished with having Matt with us the last year. Not only is the council better poised to find a replacement, the office is in a much different place than when Matt took over,” Fritz said. ‘He did an excellent job this past year of refining processes in city hall and delegating processes and establishing norms.”
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