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Vergennes sets date for special election

If you look at the list of signatories, it includes at least half the business owners in town and many who serve in local government. These are not the questions of a small group of confrontational activists.
— Sarah Stroup

VERGENNES — In a 10-minute Vergennes City Council meeting on Tuesday Mayor Lynn Donnelly announced the special election to fill four vacancies on the council will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 22. 
City residents will choose two councilors whose terms will run from Sept. 22 until March 2, 2021, and two councilors whose terms will run until March 1, 2022.
Those interested in running must supply official notice to City Clerk Britney Aube by 5 p.m. on Aug. 17, either by mail or in person, City Manager Daniel Hofman said Wednesday morning. The necessary documents for candidates can downloaded at vergennes.org or picked up at city hall.
Donnelly and Hofman first said at the meeting, and the Independent reported last week, that candidates would need to hand in petitions signed by 1% of the Vergennes voter checklist, or 21 voters.
But Vergennes Zoning Administrator Peter Garon and State Rep. Matt Birong, D-Vergennes, clarified the Legislature had passed COVID-19 legislation this spring lifting the requirement for candidates to obtain those signatures. They cited 92 V.S.A., Section 1(a).
“We waived the requirement … due to concern over unnecessary contact,” Birong said. 
The council openings came about when Mayor Jeff Fritz and Councilors Bill Benton, Tara Brooks and Mark Koenig all resigned within 10 days after a contentious and controversial July 16 special meeting that Hofman asked Fritz to call.
The meeting was warned to discuss a council member’s allegation that city police had made some citizens feel intimidated and demoralized. There has been much council and citizen debate in the past two years about the police budget, and more recently on whether a citizen police advisory board is necessary.
At the meeting, after a general opening statement from Fritz, Hofman shared a string of texts from Fritz to him the day before in which Fritz said city police were intimidating and demoralizing residents and also appeared to threaten Donnelly and Councilor David Austin. 
Hofman acknowledged reading at least parts of the texts to Donnelly and Austin before the meeting, and they made statements before the vote. Phone logs released through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests also show frequent calls among Donnelly, Hofman, Austin and Police Chief George Merkel on July 15 and 16.
Fritz later said the alleged threats were not intended seriously, but at the July 16 meeting he offered his resignation and the council voted, 5-1, to accept it; Fritz made it official in writing on July 27. Benton resigned on July 19, and Brooks and Koenig stepped down on July 27. 
The remaining three members of the seven-person council lack a quorum to appoint new councilors — or the authority to conduct any business except paying bills and calling for the special election to repopulate the council. 
Fritz resigned without further comment, but the other three councilors each to some degree lamented the current atmosphere. 
On July 19 Benton wrote in an email, “our community is filled with vitriol and mistrust,” and Brooks said she could “no longer commit the time and energy that is required to see Vergennes through its many challenges.”
Koenig wrote that after the meeting, “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.”

QUESTIONS LINGER
Meanwhile, city residents still seek answers about the July 16 meeting. At least three, Sue Rakowski, Jeremy Hofman and Sarah Stroup, have filed FOIA requests for communications records. 
On Tuesday afternoon, Stroup emailed Hofman and Donnelly. Stroup is one of two authors of a petition signed by about 250 area residents seeking more clarity about the events before and after the July 16 meeting and more “respect and professionalism” in the conduct of city business.
Stroup asked Donnelly and Hofman to address at Tuesday’s meeting two questions from the petition, which was in the form of an open letter:
“That letter asks for two things that you could provide tonight, even without a quorum: 
1. Each City official offer their own account of “what happened and why” on July 15 and 16, and
2. The City Manager describes “what information he shared with the Alderman and how he designed the response to the Mayor’s texts.”
Donnelly responded in an email: “I am not sure that this can be addressed tonight with the warning already posted but I will check. I want to be very careful that all our meetings are open to all citizens and that the meetings are conducted as directed by the (City) Charter and the secretary of state’s office. Please understand this is a very critical time for all of us. If you agree, I would like you to agree to postpone this discussion until the Aug. 11 meeting and I have time to make sure this action can be accomplished.”
Hofman also responded in an email: “I would refer you and anyone else to my statements regarding the July 16 meeting. I don’t think a political investigation that you describe, in part, in those defamatory questions, are the best way to move the city forward. Similar political questions could be asked of the coincidental resignations or Jeff Fritz’s actions. Basically, there could be any number of political investigations for different agendas and purposes. However, this is not the best way to move the city forward. I hope you can work with us to gain public engagement in a means that is not a political investigation and will help the city come together.”
Stroup replied to Hofman in an email that read, in part:
“People in positions of authority should be transparent and are accountable for their actions. Almost 250 people — including 170+ Vergennes residents — said they wanted to understand what happened on 7/16 and why. If you look at the list of signatories, it includes at least half the business owners in town and many who serve in local government. These are not the questions of a small group of confrontational activists. These questions come from people who have lived here for decades and love and serve this little city. If the city manager takes the position that these people do not need to have their questions answered, I believe that will be the choice that prevents our city from moving forward.”
The Independent reached out to Donnelly to get her take on the July 16 meeting and aftermath. 
“Our main goal at this time is to conduct the new council elections on Sept. 22,” Donnelly responded in a Wednesday email to the Independent. “The confirmation sheets are at the City Clerk’s Office to be picked up or found on the city website. Until that date, unfortunately, we can not conduct any city business accepting signing warrants.”

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