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Mayor Donnelly clarifies recent meeting remarks

COVID had a lot to do with this, because there was literally no one in the office. It was an issue, and a big one.
— Mayor Lynn Donnelly

VERGENNES — When Mayor Lynn Donnelly spoke emotionally during the Jan. 12 Vergennes City Council meeting of her on-the-spot decision not to seek to keep her seat on the council or run for office again, she also spoke of “corruption that has happened in this city” and a “financial mess.”
In an interview this week with the Independent, Donnelly clarified she was “absolutely not” referring to the current council or its members when she spoke of the corruption, but rather to events of the past summer.
She also said in a calmer moment she probably would have chosen different language.
“I’m sure that corruption was a stronger word than I would have used ordinarily,” Donnelly said. “At the moment, not expecting all that to happen, I wasn’t prepared for that.”
She also clarified the “corruption” she spoke of related to actions of former councilors with whom she disagreed. Donnelly had outlined those actions in an Oct. 6 meeting in which she tried to explain her role in last summer’s meetings during which the former Mayor Jeff Fritz resigned.
“There were so many things. And after the ex-mayor (Jeff Fritz) left there were more things. It was one thing after another. But what started it really, after the emails that time, was that he was having secret meetings,” Donnelly said.
She cited, for example, Fritz and an unnamed councilor meeting with Sheriff Peter Newton and one of his deputies about Newton’s department’s investigation of Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel. The office of the Vermont Attorney General later declined to prosecute Merkel after receiving Newton’s allegations.
Donnelly said Fritz exceeded his statutory authority, which is limited to being allowed to “run a meeting with the help of the city manager, and do tasks…that are asked for by the city council. You cannot make statements, and you cannot make accusations and you cannot make plans behind the scenes without the council’s knowledge.”
She cited other incidents, all of which she also brought up at the Oct. 6 meeting, in hopes of clearing the air after the city’s troubled summer.
Those incidents all related to the July 16 council meeting at which then-City Manager Dan Hofman revealed a string of texts from Fritz that criticized city police and allegedly threated Donnelly and Councilor David Austin.
Hofman had shared information from the texts with Donnelly and Austin, but not with other members of the council, before that contentious meeting, which triggered a chain of events that eventually led to four resignations, three on one Monday afternoon 12 days later.
Donnelly said she continues to believe those resignations were illegally coordinated, something the councilors involved say is not true, just as she and Austin insist the July 16 meeting was not designed to oust Fritz, as some residents believe.
Regardless of the whether the resignations were coordinated or not, Donnelly said the city council found itself unable to act because it lacked a quorum.
“It left a council with only three people that could not perform the duties of a council from July until September,” she said.

FINANCES
As for the financial mess, Donnelly said the city’s record-keeping was problematic over the second half of 2020, just when the city council lacked a quorum and could not meet in August and September to grasp the scope of the issues.
“There was no council sitting at the time,” she said. “I made the other two (councilors) aware, but there was nothing we could do as a council to get things back on track.”
Donnelly said the city’s auditing firm has been working since September to complete its task, but has been unable to do so because “records aren’t complete.”
She cited a checkbook that hasn’t been balanced since September, bills being paid late, and a lack of profit-loss statements.
“There’s no indication, absolutely none, there’s any missing money,” Donnelly said. “It’s just that we can’t move forward because we don’t know where we are.”
She acknowledged Hofman’s November departure played a role, and that oversight could have been better before then.
Donnelly also noted that for the second half of the year the city’s municipal government was overseen by a part-time interim manager, a new treasurer and city clerk, and COVID-19 limitations that made everybody’s jobs more difficult and time-consuming.
“COVID had a lot to do with this, because there was literally no one in the office,” Donnelly said. “It was an issue, and a big one.”
She pledged to work on city finances during the final months of her tenure as mayor.
“I have no idea how they’re going to straighten this out,” Donnelly said. “And I hope I can get it done before I leave office in March.”

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