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City police panel hopes to complete work

We’re city officials, and the city hasn’t given us any back-up or training or anything on what our rights or responsibilities are. The FOIA request was a very eye-opening experience.
— Alicia Grangent

VERGENNES — The three remaining members of the committee charged with studying whether Vergennes should establish a civilian police oversight panel are not sure they can complete their mission or how much backing they have from city officials.
But Vergennes City Council members last week said they support the committee’s work and would give the group as much time as it needed to finish their task. City officials have since then more aggressively advertised the committee’s five vacancies.
“I understand you don’t feel the support from the city council,” said Councilor Dickie Austin on Oct. 27. “It’s a new city council. At the last meeting we were all fairly expressive of supporting you. I know personally I want to hear what you guys have to say. But you need time to finish your work.”
And members of the committee remained hopeful they can finish the job, if still unsure of the outcome. 
“I look forward to getting back to work,” wrote member Neil Rele in an email. “I hope that we get to a point where we have the city leadership’s full support (in words and in action) so that we aren’t wasting our time and effort.”
Since last week, when the city and the Independent published notices of the vacancies, Mayor Lynn Donnelly and committee Chairperson Bryan Goodkowsky reported up to five residents had expressed interest. The council hopes to appoint new members on Nov. 10. 
On Aug. 11, when it still had six members, a committee Goodkowsky described as “very diverse, in backgrounds and ideas” made a preliminary recommendation: “We agree that some form of citizen review/advisory body will be beneficial” to Vergennes.  
Three committee members have since resigned, and neither the committee nor the city council was able to do much until Sept. 22, when an election restored a quorum to the council. 
Goodkowsky — along with members Alicia Grangent and Rele — told the council last week that they were not sure they could move forward without more help.

ISSUES RAISED
The three at the meeting and in interviews with the Independent cited several issues surrounding their work.
The first was a delay in advertising the vacancies, two of which came, according to committee members, because of harassment in this summer’s charged atmosphere.
After the Sept. 22 election, Goodkowsky said the failure of the city to promptly post the vacancies upset committee members.
Donnelly on Oct. 27 took responsibility, saying she was preoccupied with meetings negotiating City Manager Dan Hofman’s upcoming departure.
“That was my fault. I had so much going on with the other meetings that I did forget,” Donnelly said. “I apologize to everybody for that.”
The vacancies were posted the next day. 
The committee is also not happy that Hofman would not pay for them to talk to the city attorney when they faced Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. 
“We’re city officials, and the city hasn’t given us any back-up or training or anything on what our rights or responsibilities are. The FOIA request was a very eye-opening experience,” Grangent said.
Hofman said he had the necessary experience to guide them through the process, he willingly helped out, and he could authorize the cost.
“I answered the questions based on the many open records requests I have processed in my tenure and previous legal consults I have had relative to open records requests,” he wrote. “Because I already gained and provided the answers to the committee’s questions based on my prior legal consults, this would have been a duplicative legal expense.”
At the Oct. 27 meeting Goodkowsky pressed for legal help: “We need an education as to exactly what our limits and liabilities are.”
Austin replied for the council: “I don’t see an issue once we get the committee whole getting that first meeting involving the city attorney.” 

EQUITY STUDY
Members also said a Request for Proposal (RFP) Hofman posted on the city website seeking a company to perform “an expert assessment of racial equity in the City of Vergennes government and overall community” was something they didn’t ask for and created confusion among residents on the committee’s mission.
Hofman’s RFP stated, “The committee recommended a professional survey take place and answered questions related to the charge of the committee.
“This RFP is intended to build on the committee’s work by soliciting proposals for an expert assessment of racial equity in the City of Vergennes government and overall community. The assessment shall diagnose specific issues and make recommendations for the next steps for the city to take.”
Committee members said that’s not what they wanted when they approached Hofman and asked for funding for a survey.
Grangent said she told Hofman the committee was looking at “a simple survey in town sitting at either Shaw’s or city park or wherever and doing some mail-out ballots to people.”  
Grangent said the issue of race clouded the committee’s purpose of creating police oversight, and as one of the city’s few Black residents added, “I look at a race assessment as targeted at the few people of color in Vergennes.”  
Rele had similar opinions.
“In reading the RFP, I was left with the impression that Vergennes has some sort of ‘race problem’ when in fact the conversation in the (committee) has focused on creating opportunities for stronger community engagement and inclusive policing … conflating these issues is a worrisome and ill-considered approach that places an undue burden on communities of color,” he wrote.
Councilors said at their past two meetings the RFP has been put on hold, and they will allow the committee, if such a study does go forward, to have input on questions that it can use to survey residents on policing issues. 
Dickie Austin also suggested the committee could do its own survey.
“I don’t hate the idea of two birds with one stone,” he said. “But a separate survey to address specifically a civilian advisory board, separate from specific race issues, I think is reasonable.”

LOOKING AHEAD
Committee members believe in the potential value of a police advisory board that can work with both residents and police to improve community relations and communications, and support both citizens with complaints and officers in the line of duty.
Goodkowsky works for a contractor that provides security services to the federal government and is licensed by Vermont and federally certified as an armed security officer. 
He believes such a board could help advise city officials on technical and budgeting issues as well as support police and residents, but only if city officials commit resources to train members on police matters and citizens’ civil rights. 
“It can do a tremendous amount of good for relations with the community as well as morale for the police department if each guy feels that there’s someone impartial that has their back,” he said.
“And with a skilled, trained body that knows how to research these things, we can determine more of what the needs of Vergennes are for a police department.”
Grangent said she wants the committee to get its job done, and then let the chips fall. 
“I think the mission will be completed. Will the city council vote to have it put in place? I don’t think so,” she said. “My mission is to complete what I started. So what they choose to do with it has always been whatever they choose to do with it.”   

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