Vergennes mayor draws fire, defends actions

I worry that personal grievances might continue to influence city decisions.
— Carrie Macfarlane

VERGENNES — Vergennes Mayor Lynn Donnelly warned a special city council meeting on Tuesday to “have a discussion regarding the events that led up to the July 16th meeting,” and unofficially to try push things in the right direction after weeks of political turmoil in the city.
Donnelly explained that goal. 
“I do very much look forward to working with the council with their new ideas and vision for the future,” she said. “We need to move forward and put the past behind us and look forward to a united city.”
Based on Zoom comments and chat responses from the roughly 100 people who attended, some progress might have been made, but results were mixed. 
Newly elected Councilor Dickie Austin summed things up near the end of a meeting that lasted more than 90 minutes. 
Austin was one of several who praised Donnelly for calling the event knowing she would draw fire for her role in the July 16 meeting that led to the resignation of Mayor Jeff Fritz and three councilors. But he said he was uncertain of the Tuesday meeting’s effect. 
“The idea of holding a forum knowing full well there was some public issue with your actions personally took a certain level of bravery, and I do applaud you for that. I don’t know that we have accomplished the set goal for this meeting. I think the conversation will certainly need to continue,” Austin said. 
“But I’m confident at our actual meeting we’ll be able to move forward with the backlog of city business.”

Donnelly opened the meeting with a statement that alleged Fritz had at times exceeded his mayoral authority by representing the city without council approval.
She cited meetings with Sheriff Peter Newton about city police, with the Bixby Library and Vergennes Partnership boards, discussion of creating a citizen police review board, and appointing members to an exploratory committee to investigate such a panel, all while “working outside the former council’s acknowledgment and consent.”
The day before the July 16 meeting, texts from Fritz to City Manager Daniel Hofman arrived, the first of which contained statements from Fritz that police were “demoralizing” and “intimidating” some people. 
Hofman said Fritz had to call a meeting to address it, and Fritz agreed. Donnelly said later texts included alleged threats to her and Councilor David Austin, which Hofman read to them the evening of July 15.  
At the meeting, Donnelly said she hoped, but did not expect, Fritz would say he was the source of the complaints about the police. 
She was ready when he didn’t come clean and instead presented a statement supportive of city police.
Donnelly on Tuesday said: “I had a prepared letter hoping I would not have to read it. But I knew in the end Jeff would try to cover his personal thoughts and not disclose his true feelings.”
She noted the mayor asked for the 5-1 vote that asked for his resignation. 
“It was the mayor that asked for the vote of the board, not me,” Donnelly said, adding Fritz could have chosen to stay on until March 2021 and let citizens decide. “Jeff Fritz brought his downfall on himself. There was no coup.”
Not all residents at Tuesday’s meeting were happy with Donnelly’s statement. 
“It seemed like your remarks were more like an attack on the former mayor … than any attempt to move us forward,” said Nial Rele.
Allison Rimmer called the fact that three aldermen did not know of the texts or their contents before the meeting “problematic.” She said the texts and the allegations that Donnelly listed against Fritz weren’t on the agenda, and they were a “personnel issue” that should have been handled in an executive session. 
“It’s not what the other aldermen and the citizens expected to hear,” Rimmer said.
Donnelly said the texts would not have been revealed if Fritz was truthful, and the public needed to know the truth.
“If you’re going to complain and say the police department was threatening, then you don’t come on and read a letter that says, ‘I love the police,’” she said. “We did not think people would believe us (if Fritz resigned) … without the public knowing.”
Resident Catherine Brooks disagreed.
“Please don’t underestimate us,” Brooks said. “Of course there could have been a report afterwards.”
Former ANWSD board chairwoman Sue Rakowski also asked whether the July 16 meeting “stayed on topic and was true to the agenda,” and whether Donnelly would’ve done anything different.
Donnelly responded in retrospect: 
“I probably would have asked for an executive session.” 

Donnelly also wondered in her opening statement about the motives of the councilors who resigned almost simultaneously on the afternoon of July 27, Mark Koenig and Tara Brooks as well as Fritz.
“I also question the intentions of the elected councilmen who must have had a common decision to quit within the same 20-minute period. The secret emails and phone calls among elected officials continue,” she said.   
Koenig explained that on July 27 he tried to broker a deal in which Donnelly would agree to step down as deputy mayor, thus allowing Councilor Lowell Bertrand to become mayor when Fritz made his resignation final. Koenig said the last-minute coordinated resignations occurred after that arrangement fell apart. 
“There was a faction of the community who was very angry at Jeff. There was a faction of the community who was very angry at you,” Koenig told Donnelly. “I was hoping to heal that divide by bringing in somebody who didn’t have that animosity coming with it. You thought about it during the course of that Monday and said no, you were going to stay.”
That decision, according to Koenig, led to the resignations.
“Tuesday’s meeting was going to be crazy and make things even worse. I knew Jeff was going to be stepping down on Tuesday. I knew Tara was thinking about stepping down. So I checked with both of them and found out yes, they were going to resign at Tuesday’s meeting. So I suggested we resign on Monday,” Koenig said. “There was no secret agenda. There was no long-term planning. The thought to resign and the actual resignation was a 30-minute difference in time.”
Donnelly said she decided not to step down then, and also resisted calls from a few Zoom chatters to do so on Tuesday.
“My intent is not to step down, but to fulfill the place that I was chosen for by the mayor and the council,” Donnelly said. “I was elected by over 500 people … So there might be five or 10 of you who wish that I would be hit by a car, but the truth of the matter is I like the position that I have and the people that support me.”

Some suggested the council adopt policies and procedures to help it succeed. 
“You need ground rules that you all agree to that will guide your discussions,” said John Stroup. “I really encourage the city council to build those together. You’re going to need them when the going gets tough … Please take the time to build those norms together, and the first norm should be no surprises.”
Several cited the need for civility, including on the city website. Hofman has drawn fire from the chairpersons of both the city’s planning and recreation committees for posts that have criticized members of city boards. 
Carrie Macfarlane said it appeared “a long history of personal grievances” had shown up in the July 16 meeting, and had also been “aired on the city website.” 
“I worry that personal grievances might continue to influence city decisions. So I wonder how you plan to ensure personal grievances won’t influence city decisions going forward,” she said.
Donnelly responded: “I’ve already asked the city manager and any other city employee who addresses me directly to please send all the information to me before anything is posted.”   
She also summed up her point of view.
“If everybody just gives us a fair chance, I think you’ll find we’re very reasonable,” Donnelly said. “There will be some divided votes, there’s no doubt about it. But in the end, it’s the best thing for the city if we can go forward and we can all become a great council.”
And Dickie Austin pointed to a positive. 
“We have 100 participants in this room,” Dickie Austin said. “Thank you, everyone, for attending. This level of turnout really shows a level of passion for the city, and the health of it.”
Watch the full meeting here:

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