Vergennes election looms after resignations

I … can no longer work with people who have lied to me on numerous occasions over the past ten days and who have no interest in repairing the immense harm done during the July 16 Special Meeting.
— Councilor Mark Koenig

VERGENNES — After four elected Vergennes officials resigned, most citing the divisions and hard feelings that have recently developed in the city, those vacancies on the city council will be filled in a special citywide election tentatively scheduled for late September.
City Manager Dan Hofman on Wednesday said he and the three remaining council members — Mayor Lynn Donnelly and Councilors David Austin and Lowell Bertrand — would meet on Tuesday to pick a date. 
Those interested in seats on the council must submit petitions to get on the September ballot. The deadline to do so should become clear after next week’s meeting, Hofman said. Those petitions will require the signatures of at least 1% of the city checklist, or 21 voters. 
The resignation of Mayor Jeff Fritz and three councilors in a nine-day span, three on Monday alone, made the special election necessary. It also resulted in the cancellation of this past Tuesday’s scheduled council meeting.
The remaining three members of the seven-person council lack a quorum to appoint new councilors — or the authority to essentially conduct any business except paying bills and, apparently, calling for a special election to repopulate the council. City officials contacted the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office on Tuesday for guidance.
Councilor Bill Benton was the first to resign after the controversial July 16 meeting during which the council voted, 5-1, to accept Fritz’s verbal resignation, although Fritz did not officially step down until Monday afternoon. 
On July 19 Benton announced he was stepping down in an email that stated, in part, “our community is filled with vitriol and mistrust. The road forward will be time consuming and difficult. I have a heavy workload, close family and new grandchild. I do not have the time or the energy to fulfill the commitment that will be necessary to bring our community back together.”
On Monday, Fritz and Councilors Tara Brooks and Mark Koenig emailed their notices to city hall, all in the late afternoon. Fritz’s 5 p.m. email included no text other than a request that his “formal resignation” be accepted immediately.
Brooks, elected to the council this past March for the first time, in her 4:54 p.m. email said she resigned “with a heavy heart.” 
Brooks cited her “important obligation to the children and families of the Addison Northwest School District as the Director of Afterschool and Summer Services,” and said she could, “no longer commit the time and energy that is required to see Vergennes through its many challenges.”
Koenig’s 4:22 p.m. email leveled criticisms against some of his former colleagues and Hofman. 
It also came after he tried to broker a deal in which, according to emails obtained by the Independent, he proposed an emergency meeting for that evening at which Donnelly would agree to step down as deputy mayor, Fritz would resign, and Bertrand would take over as mayor until at least November. 
In a 9 a.m. email on Monday, Koenig proposed the plan “as a way to move forward in the most effective and non-divisive manner,” and added that “a significant number of people in our community are angry at and distrusting of the actions and motives of Jeff, Lynn, David, the Council as a whole, the City Manager, and/or the Chief of Police.”
He introduced the plan in a written message to the council: “The events that led up to and occurred during the July 16 Special Meeting have brought the Council and the City to a crossroads. The choices we make during the next 36 hours will resonate for the foreseeable future.”
In response about two hours later, Hofman raised a number of objections to the proposal, including the legality of an executive session for that purpose, the rushed nature of the plan, the possible “violation of open meeting law,” and the uncertainty of Fritz’s and Donnelly’s cooperation.
Hofman concluded:
“Fifth, shouldn’t we take our time with this whole process, discuss this openly on the record while being transparent, and do things the right way? Sixth, (Vermont League of Cities and Towns) stated ‘the expected or pending resignation of a public officer does not constitute grounds for entering executive session.’”
Koenig’s resignation email cited the same reluctance as did that of Brooks, but more displeasure. 
“I do so with a heavy heart, but can no longer work with people who have lied to me on numerous occasions over the past ten days and who have no interest in repairing the immense harm done during the July 16 Special Meeting,” he wrote. “We are elected officials charged with overseeing the well-being of our community and I have taken that charge very seriously. However, it appears that Lynn Donnelly and David Austin prefer to focus on insults made behind their backs rather than the procedural and legal concerns that have been raised by residents since that meeting.”
He then turned his attention to the city manager.
“I apologize to the community at large for being one of the Council who supported the hiring of City Manager Daniel Hofman. It seems clear to me now that placing trust and confidence in him was a grave mistake; a mistake for which we are all now paying a high price.”
Finally, he criticized those officials and community members who he believes have unfairly undermined efforts to study the possibility of a citizen police advisory board that would report to the city manager. 
“The misinformation and fear tactics surrounding even the exploration of a police oversight committee is appalling. Public servants should not only expect, but demand, that the public to whom they are sworn to serve and protect work with them,” Koenig wrote.
“That requires a true partnership, not one side telling the other what they can and cannot know, or what they can and cannot do. City Hall is audited annually without the City Treasurer feeling demoralized or insulted that outsiders are checking her work and ensuring her compliance with appropriate policies and laws,” Koenig continued. 
“I wish the City luck and will do what I can as a private citizen.”

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