Former city manager claims council seat
VERGENNES — Former longtime Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley defeated former city alderman David Small in Tuesday’s runoff election, 427-379, or 53%-47%, for a council seat that carries a term that runs through this March.
Turnout was about 39%, even higher than the Sept. 22 special election in which Hawley originally defeated Small by one vote, 339-338, for one of four council seats on the ballot that day.
That close vote triggered a Sept. 25 recount that uncovered a Sept. 22 hand-counting error and produced a 339-339 tie. City officials scheduled this Tuesday’s runoff election in the fire department basement to add the missing seventh member of the Vergennes council.
The candidates were both at the polling station on Tuesday evening and treated each other with respect and humor as the city’s Board of Civil Authority (mostly city council members) counted ballots.
Off and on during the hour it took to tally the 806 valid ballots (plus three that were spoiled) Small and Hawley chatted, joked about another tie result, and compared predictions on the outcome (Hawley’s guess was within seven votes).
Afterward Small congratulated Hawley and they bumped elbows. Mayor and Board of Civil Authority Member Lynn Donnelly congratulated Hawley on his victory and Small on his strong campaign.
Small, a marketing and sales professional, said he would like to see that tenor from the city council moving forward.
“I would love to see personality, personal difference, taken out of the equation, and focusing on good governance. Good governance, management, and making decision with the facts at hand,” Small said.
Small said he would not rule out seeking a two-year term in March, especially considering the next council will determine the city’s 2021-2022 budget.
“I am still very much assessing what I will do,” he said. “A lot can happen between now and March, and there’s a lot of great ways to be involved. And so we’ll assess over the next couple months if city council this time around will be what I’ll want to do. But we’ve got some time to figure that out.”
Small also thanked those who voted for him, and even those who did not. Many in Vergennes have pointed to the number of candidates for the council in September (14) and the strong turnout in August, September and October elections as signs of healthy civic involvement.
“I’m super grateful and humbled by all the support I’ve had. It was just incredible,” he said. “And the fact we had such a big, huge turnout was awesome. I’m really proud of that.”
Asked about his priorities for his term in office, Hawley said he hoped between now and March the council and community could come together and discuss the size of the city’s police department and its budget, a source of debate and contention for the past year and a half.
“This community clearly needs a discussion about police. They really do. That wasn’t the way it should have been handled last June (2019),” Hawley said. “Maybe we have an opportunity now, between now and the next budget cycle, to have that community discussion so that the city council can set policy and direct the city manager to write the budget.”
Hawley has been publicly critical, including on social media, of the unsuccessful 2019 proposal to cut two officers from the department, particularly its timing.
“I was really upset when the city council was talking about reducing the police force by two people on the 18th of June, and then there was this meeting on the 28th,” he said after Tuesday’s vote. “It’s really not appropriate to treat city employees that way, giving them 12-days notice to a layoff.”
Hawley also responded to some people he said have criticized part of his record as manager.
“The city council sets policy as it relates to the size of the police department. It’s not the city manager. It’s not the mayor. It’s the city council,” Hawley said. “People talked about how the police department budget swelled during my years being the city manager. I’ve got thick skin. It’s OK by me if they want to talk about it. But all I was ever doing was administering city council policy.”
Hawley’s election brings the council back up to full strength for the first time since four members resigned after a controversial July 16 council meeting. With only three members the council lacked a quorum until the Sept. 22 election, and it has been operating with six members since then.
Hawley swung into action quickly: The council was set to discuss the employment status of City Manager Daniel Hofman at 6 p.m. on Wednesday in what is scheduled to be the third closed-door session on that topic in nine days.
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