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Big fuss in tiny Goshen leads to officials’ exodus

DAVID MCKINNON

GOSHEN — Town Clerk Rosemary McKinnon walked into the town office with a broken arm in a sling one day last month and found this message written on the chalkboard: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” 

Concerned for her personal safety, she called Vermont State Police and was told that the message constituted a threat.  

After more than six months of mounting tension with the selectboard and the resignation of four other town officials, McKinnon knew her time as town clerk had come to an end. 

After 15 years on the job, McKinnon resigned, effective June 20.

Her move followed the departure of two selectboard members, the road foreman and the town treasurer, most of whom cited the current three-member selectboard as the reason. Assistant Town Clerk Marci Hayes, whose job was tied to McKinnon’s, left that position at the same time McKinnon left hers.

Several of the discontented officials say this particularly rough patch started when Thomasina Magoon was elected to the Goshen selectboard in March 2022. She replaced David McKinnon (Rosemary’s husband), who had served on the selectboard 15 years and chose not to run.

Selectboard member Jeff Cathcart resigned in August 2022 after a run-in with Magoon in a parking lot while board members were discussing a town truck. Magoon and selectboard member Diane O’Classen appointed Bill Mathis to take Cathcart’s spot on the board.

Then O’Classen resigned a few months later, citing issues with Magoon and general dissatisfaction with the rest of the board. Magoon and Mathis appointed Tammy Walsh as the third member of the three-member Goshen selectboard.

Early this year, Road Foreman Jim Hayes resigned after quite a few years on the job.

Finally, town Treasurer Susanne George resigned this spring.

Selectboard members Magoon and Mathis did not express dissatisfaction with McKinnon’s departure, and they didn’t have much to say about the message on the chalkboard.

Mathis, who chairs the selectboard, does not think that the message was written with malicious intent. 

“I think people are making too much out of what is really a 200-year-old saying,” he said. “It’s a piece of irony, but obviously, people can sometimes take things the way that they want them to.”

Magoon, one of two selectboard members contacted by state police following the incident, also didn’t see why offense was taken.

“That is a literary quote that someone wrote on there,” she said.

She declined to comment on whether it was a problem that somebody in the office would write such a comment.

“I don’t know what the grind is about that,” she said.

Magoon proceeded to explain some of her achievements since elected last year. One she noted was the initiation of a town website, goshenvt.org. 

Several people have reached out to the local newspaper to complain about town leadership in the past year.

Prior to seeing the threatening message on the chalkboard, Town Clerk McKinnon was concerned and disappointed with a number of the selectboard’s decisions, two of the biggest were the removal of the town office security cameras and the relocation of an election box. 

At the time the message was left on the chalkboard, it was impossible to determine the culprit because the town office surveillance system was being replaced by the selectboard. The building was left with no camera and was un-surveilled for a period of time.

Mathis did not see a problem with there having been no surveillance system while the replacement occurred. 

Magoon said the cameras were removed because the selectboard was concerned that McKinnon’s husband and former selectboard chair David McKinnon installed the original cameras and had access to their content. 

Magoon says the McKinnons initiated the installation of the original cameras. 

“They had complete control, the viewing and everything of the cameras,” she said. 

Magoon claims David McKinnon was able to access camera footage from his phone, allowing for prompt access to any footage.

“The current board inherited no policies, no procedures, no HR, anything, nothing,” she said. “When you have a municipal building that has a security camera in it, you need to have a policy in place that says this is what happens when there’s an incident.”

A policy for the new cameras has not yet been implemented, but is pending approval. 

Magoon says that David McKinnon refused the selectboard access to the cameras after his term concluded in 2022.  

“This is not OK,” she said, asserting that the buildings and grounds of the town office are the responsibility of the board.  

A contingent of former town officials and citizens criticized the selectboard for removing the security cameras. They included both McKinnons, O’Classen and Cathcart, as well as citizen Lucy Stephens and Madine Reed, a town lister who has held positions on the planning commission, cemetery committee and Goshen Historical Society.

In a written statement, the group said David McKinnon’s IT expertise and pressure to keep his professional reputation intact outweighed the potential conflict of interest posed by the McKinnons’ marital relationship.

“The facts that the past IT administrator is highly qualified and experienced, bonded, is in a computer security business that would be harmed had they committed any wrongful action or inaction, and is donating their expert services speak for themselves as good, prudent reasonable judgment in selecting that IT administrator,” they said in the statement.

ELECTION BOX MOVED

The maintenance and upkeep of municipal property has been contentious in other regards as well, namely when the selectboard relocated an election dropbox from the front of the town office to the rear. 

Town Clerk Rosemary McKinnon complained that the task is not within the selectboard jurisdiction. She said the dropbox was purchased with state funds and, like in all Vermont towns, was under the sole control of the Board of Civil Authority (BCA).

Will Senning, director of elections for the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office, confirmed that the relocation of an election box is the sole responsibility of the BCA, which is made up of the three selectboard members, the town clerk and the justice of the peace. Before the box is moved, an official BCA meeting with all members must occur. A majority of board members must vote yes on a decision to move the box, Senning said. 

“Can you imagine a world where any of them (BCA members) unilaterally could just go in and start moving the dropbox around?” Senning asked.

The law does not specifically note how a selectboard can interact with an election box. The law does state that election boxes are the responsibility of the Board of Civil Authority, and therefore it is the BCA’s, and no other municipal entity’s, responsibility to manage an election box. 

Mathis doesn’t agree with the state elections official. He said “the language” is unsupportable of the claim that the selectboard is not allowed to relocate an election box. 

Senning defended his point.

“It’s, like, very clear that that’s (election box placement) their (the Board of Civil Authority’s) purview,” he said. “Anyone other than somebody operating under the direction of the BCA shouldn’t be moving that box.”  

Mathis said he was “surprised” to hear that this was what the Secretary of State had to say.   

When asked if looking back he feels the selectboard should have moved the election box he said, “based on the knowledge that we had at the time? I’m not sure it was a mistake.” 

Following the incident, McKinnon contacted the Secretary of State and was instructed to contact the police if the incident occurred again. Senning confirmed that this was the proper procedure:

“If they (the selectboard) or anybody moves the ballot dropbox, without a decision of the Board of Civil Authority that they’re doing that in an official capacity, then yeah, you should call the authorities.” 

Goshen’s new town clerk, Martin Fjeld, who began the position early last week, said, “I would stand with what the Secretary of State (has) spoken” if the selectboard were to move the box in the future.

Senning also noted that the incident could be considered tampering with the election box.

“There’s nothing specific in the election law saying nobody shall move the ballot box. But it says it shall be secured in the ground in a way that it can’t be moved without being tampered with is the language … so it has to be tampered with to be moved.”

Senning continued, “And to me then that crosses over into other areas like destruction, defacement of municipal property … you just shouldn’t be messing with municipal property without authorization.”

Magoon justified the selectboard’s actions by explaining that the entity does have the ability to make buildings and grounds decisions.

She also pointed out the benefits of the new location; she said the box is more handicap-accessible, and it’s no longer “an absolute eyesore.” 

The building, which Magoon notes is historic, will also be getting new floors. 

OTHER COMPLAINTS

The Goshen contingent that defended the security cameras set up by David McKinnon cited many other shortcomings of the current selectboard. These included:

• Alleged mishandling of an official bid that the board said was lost but then found in the trash.

• Verbal abuse, some of which was recorded at public meetings.

• Taking away use of the town hall for public dinners and other community-building activities.

• Creating a computer network that could expose personal information to people who weren’t authorized.

• Making it difficult for Rosemary McKinnon to use her email when she was town clerk.

David McKinnon was so upset that he ran for selectboard this past March. Mathis won the election with 72 votes to McKinnon’s 45. In the other selectboard race, Marci Hayes ran against Tammy Walsh; the incumbent (Walsh) won with 65 votes to Hayes’s 53.

In recounting her accomplishments, Magoon said other aesthetic projects she is working on include a kitchen renovation in the town hall and updates to the flagpole. She also noted a “complete technology upgrade,” in the town offices, getting garbage trucks fixed and inspected and improving the town’s roads. 

“People are so excited,” with the road improvements she says. 

When asked whether or not it’s a challenge to perform selectboard duties with the volume of turnover in town official positions over the past seven months, Magoon effused about the efforts of the selectboard. She said the board is trying to do some planning ahead and really look at projects the town can undertake.

“Oh, my goodness, we are actually working our rear ends off,” she said. 

Nevertheless, the same group that provided the written statement above said that the town has never been so divided, and it worries that the loss of so many experienced town officials will hurt Goshen.

“The damage that this ‘experience drain’ can likely cause relative to the vital human infrastructure of our town is significant,” they wrote.

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