Vergennes council fills police study committee amid tension

Ultimately it’s a group of citizens who have offered their time and their resources to help to make the relationship better. If it were me in their shoes I’d be incredibly frustrated.
—Councilor Jill Murray-Killon

VERGENNES — After a couple of fits and starts and a split vote, the Vergennes City Council on Nov. 10 filled out the ranks — plus one — of the committee that’s exploring whether the city should create a citizen review panel to help oversee and/or work with the Vergennes Police Department.
After debate over whether the committee should be formed anew with a new charter — a suggestion from Deputy Mayor Mel Hawley that committee members saw as another obstacle placed in their path — councilors appointed six residents to the panel, increasing it to nine members. 
The new committee members are Mabrouka Mbarek, Jon Kidde, Mark Koenig, Allison Rimmer, Cheryl Brinkman and John Coburn. They joined Chairperson Bryan Goodkowsky, Alicia Grangent and Nial Rele.
Goodkowsky has resigned from the committee since the Nov. 10 meeting. The city council was set to consider an appointment to replacement him at its Tuesday meeting, which was held after the early deadline for this issue of the Independent.  
Five members of the committee had resigned. Two resigned in July, according to other committee members, because of harassment during this summer’s charged atmosphere. Three others stepped down in August after the committee issued a preliminary finding “that some form of citizen review/advisory body will be beneficial” to Vergennes.
Since then, the panel has been unable to do anything significant because until Sept. 22 the city council lacked a quorum to refill the committee’s ranks. The council has since agreed to extend the group’s time to complete its mission, especially to survey residents about policing issues. 
The council on Nov. 10 agreed to add five members, but both Hawley and Councilor David Austin objected to former councilor Koenig’s inclusion on the list. They voted on the short side of 4-2 counts specifically to include him and on the final slate. 
Hawley alleged Koenig had “anti-police” bias, but others said a diversity of views is healthy.
“I think everyone on this list is perfectly qualified,” said Councilor Ian Huizenga.
The council agreed before making the appointments to amend the committee charge to include a ninth member.

Before the votes, tensions rose when Hawley suggested the committee should be reformed and its charge rewritten, in part because it had failed to meet its original 30-day time limit to make recommendations set in its original charter.
The committee was formed this summer and appointed by former mayor Jeff Fritz after getting a green light and member recommendations from the council. Originally intended as an advisory group reporting to Fritz, it was switched to an official city committee after one meeting.
Hawley said according to its charter the committee had failed to deliver a report in a timely manner, adding he believed the charge offered the panel “a very narrow scope.”  
“It’s November and now we’re talking about appointing more people to this committee,” he said, adding the council could “look at the charge for this committee and then once it’s reviewed, figure out … if there really is a need for an exploratory committee.”
Councilor Dickie Austin noted the council had agreed more than once to extend the council’s time to complete its mission, which will include a survey, and Councilor Jill Murray-Killon pointed out the committee was shorthanded.
“I don’t think they had enough people to perform the work they had been assigned,” Murray-Killon said, and then asked for Goodkowsky’s thoughts.
He was ready to answer.
“I am sick to death of the bloviating on the existence of this committee. This committee was created. It was discussed on city council. I’ve reviewed that meeting twice. It’s been discussed ad nauseam,” Goodkowsky said. “It couldn’t be done in 30 days. We needed more time. And then the city council, we lost city hall. And part of it is we lost members of this committee.”
Committee members have also been complaining for months of city officials placing obstacles in their path.
They objected to the council’s delay in advertising the vacancies, an inaccurate portrayal of the committee as “handpicked” by former mayor Jeff Fritz, the failure of the city manager to allow them to speak to the city attorney when some members faced Freedom of Information Act requests, and the manager’s advertising for a citywide racial equity study they said was unnecessary for their mission and that some members felt would target the city’s small minority population.
The council has since repeatedly stated it supports the committee, but Goodkowsky’s frustrations bubbled over on Tuesday.
“Mel, I know you’ve seemed to be against our work from the beginning. This is an important discussion that needs to happen. Let us do our work. That’s what we’re here for today. Your committee, your council, has been given a list of nominations for your council to approve that’s going to replace this body. That is what your council needs to do,” Goodkowsky said. “Frankly, shut up and let us do our work.”
Rele — citing the police department’s budget and recent data showing implicit bias in traffic stop outcomes, both things in his opinion that indicate a citizen review panel could be helpful — echoed Goodkowsky.
“It is tremendously frustrating to try to do honest work for the city in exploring this topic, to have obstacle after obstacle after obstacle put up, whether it be questions about the charge, or whatever that might be,” Rele said.
Hawley later in the meeting said he didn’t oppose the committee, but said he was concerned the committee was “acting outside its charter.”  
“My frustration is really the fact that the committee hasn’t stuck to its charge, which in my opinion was poorly written to begin with. But I’m fine with going forward if no one else wants to rewrite this charge before we repopulate. But the committee has to understand they have to stick to the scope of the charge,” he said.
Goodkowsky responded. 
“We haven’t gotten out of the scope of our charge unless you want to talk about the timeline,” he said. “The charge has given us a list of questions to answer. We’ve answered three of those already. The other ones are still to be answered.”
Councilors said they understood Hawley’s technical point and committee members’ mood.  
“Ultimately it’s a group of citizens who have offered their time and their resources to help to make the relationship better. If it were me in their shoes I’d be incredibly frustrated,” Murray-Killon said. “So I think we need to take a different perspective here and work together instead of against one another.”
The council reached consensus to make the appointments.
“I said to Bryan personally that today is a new day for starting to move forward, and I want to move forward in a positive way,” said Mayor Lynn Donnelly. “Let’s start anew today and not look back. Let’s move forward and see if we can’t get this done.”  

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