Tensions flare at City Council meeting
VERGENNES — After a divided Vergennes City Council on Tuesday night supported her effort to return to her seat on the council through March 2022, Mayor Lynn Donnelly on Wednesday morning announced she would not seek to retain the two-year term to which she was elected in March 2020.
Donnelly, a longtime councilor, was chosen as deputy mayor by the council shortly after her election. She took over as mayor when then-mayor Jeff Fritz resigned in July.
The issue at an at-times contentious Tuesday council meeting — one that drew criticism from some attendees for its tone and outcome after it was warned only as “Appointment of City Manager” — was whether Donnelly had to forfeit the rest of her original term.
After a 4-3 vote, in which she cast the deciding yea vote in her own favor, Donnelly had a change of heart she revealed in a Wednesday email in which she also criticized her colleagues:
“Last night’s meeting was another difficult one for me. No one cares about this City more than I do … This decision is being made after a great deal of thought and reflection on where our City is headed …
“I felt we now have a City Council that works together well and has the same goals to bring the City back from the undermined deceptions by past leaders. This apparently is not the case.
“I truly believe that sitting in for a resigning mayor should not change the status of an election. I agree the charter does not address this situation as clearly as it should but I thought the Council would vote the will of the election and not by their biases …
“This Council is a disappointment to me as it is evident that division will continue when unity was possible. Errors of the past also will continue without regard for what is right.
“So with this letter I am letting you know, in the best interest of the City moving forward, I will relinquish my seat at the March election.”
Later on Wednesday Donnelly clarified that she would consider running for another term.
At the meeting Councilors Mel Hawley, Lowell Bertrand and David Austin supported Donnelly. Initially Donnelly declined to vote, but when informed she had the right to, she changed her mind.
Councilors Dickie Austin, Ian Huizenga and Jill Murray-Killon voted that she should relinquish her seat in March.
David Austin suggested amending the agenda to include the topic, which had been discussed individually by councilors prior to the meeting.
The issue had to be resolved quickly to allow the city meeting warning to be prepared with the proper number of openings for elected officials. But Interim City Manager Renny Perry had recommended the council handle it next week.
All agreed the Vergennes charter was vague on the question, and the city’s September special elections were probably mishandled.
The charter makes no mention of what happens to the remainder of the deputy mayor’s term once he or she assumes the duties of mayor.
The council worked on the assumption that the precedent was that the deputy mayor became the mayor and fulfilled the remainder of the term and lost his or her term. That was the case when Perry, then deputy mayor, took over when Mike Daniels resigned in February 2018; Perry lost the second year of a term.
“It was my understanding because it’s been done that way almost from the beginning of time,” Perry said. “Discussion of the charter is one thing. But some council, maybe 100 years ago, looked at the same language, and decided to do it the way we’re doing it. To me, they defined what that means.”
Hawley on Wednesday said Perry should have kept his seat for another year.
“If Renny assumed he didn’t have rights, he was wrong,” Hawley said. “The precedent argument doesn’t hold water with me.”
But at the meeting the precedent argument appeared to carry weight.
Murray-Killon called the charter “fairly vague” on the subject, but said there was a precedent set with a “clear understanding” that a deputy mayor must relinquish a council term in the circumstances.
As for the September election, Hawley said one interpretation of the charter could be that the seventh seat on the council wouldn’t be filled until the next election, thus allowing the deputy mayor to slide back into an open seat.
But the election called for four seats to be filled after four councilors resigned this summer, creating a seven-member panel, including Donnelly. That left three incumbents up for re-election in March (Huizenga, Hawley and Bertrand), plus Donnelly still standing.
Also, officials said when Hawley and former alderman David Small tied for one of the seats, the charter calls for a council election, not a city-wide runoff vote. That result could have theoretically created a different council, given that Small ran jointly with Huizenga, Dickie Austin and Murray-Killon.
Dickie Austin urged councilors to put the election concerns behind them and focus on the future. He said just as Donnelly had been chosen by voters, those councilors had effectively been chosen to replace her when she replaced Fritz. Thus, following precedent and fixing the charter should be the focus, he said.
Dickie Austin also cited one election provision in the charter that was clear: In even-numbered years residents elect three councilors and a mayor, and in odd-numbered years they choose three councilors. Allowing Donnelly to keep her seat and also holding an election for three aldermen would be “direct violation” of that charter schedule, he said.
But Hawley said elections have been thrown off schedule previously by council resignations, and the schedule could be restored in 2022 with an election that included three two-year and one one-year council terms up for grabs.
And Donnelly said she had acted in good faith in a crisis and believed she could keep the seat voters gave her.
“I assumed I had a second year. That’s why this is all coming up,” she said. “How can you justify giving up what the people chose? … I don’t understand the rationale.”
Hawley made another point, first addressing Donnelly.
“There isn’t any action of your own that did away with your second term,” he said.
Hawley then added that her selection as deputy mayor by her peers on the council should not subvert the will of the residents on Town Meeting Day: “An election by the aldermen should not trump, no pun intended, an election by the voters.”
Murray-Killon countered: “The time to object to the four of us being elected was before it occurred.”
Residents weighed in and wondered why the council was not waiting for Donnelly’s email to the Secretary of State’s office for more information to be returned, or for consultation with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns to be sought.
Hawley remained unhappy on Wednesday, saying councilors did not appreciate Donnelly’s long service to the community.
“It was absolutely disrespectful for her, and absolutely disrespectful to all the people who voted for her this year,” Hawley said. “It’s a slap in the face to Lynn Donnelly.”
But residents at the meeting and afterward were not happy with the unwarned agenda item and the tenor of the meeting.
Darren Donovan said he saw recent progress toward transparency being undone.
“I thought things were beginning to work at little bit,” Donovan said. “This is just not right. I’m not happy as a citizen.”
Abby Blum said citizens were losing faith in the council.
“It’s things like this that make us really question our leadership,” Brooks said.
Chris Spencer and Sarah Stroup sounded a similar theme, both wishing more research and thought had gone into the proceedings.
“It’s unfortunate any sort of vote was taken this evening,” Spencer said.
“This stuff is too important to do on the fly,” Stroup said. “I hope the city council will invite the public to discuss this again.”
Jeremy Holm thanked councilors for all of their hard work, but said they were failing to consider the atmosphere that lingered from the city’s summer of discontent.
“I would ask you to consider the last six months,” Holm said. “Now you move forward with doubt.”
Nial Rele spoke at the meeting and later addressed what he saw as the issues in an email. He said the meeting looked like “an opportunistic power-grab.
“I am tired of hearing the sentiment mentioned several times last night — that they didn’t mean to do anything underhanded. Even though they knowingly went ahead and acted exactly in that way last night,” Rele wrote. “This is not how you build trust and faith in local leadership.”
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