OFFICE OF THE SELECTBOARD
Town of Halifax, Vermont
SELECTBOARD SPECIAL MEETING MINUTES
July 1, 2015
Call to Order
The meeting was called to order at 6:30 p.m. Selectboard members Lewis Sumner and Edee Edwards were present, as were Stephan Chait, Joe Tamburrino, Cara Cheyette, Ray Combs, Rick Gay, Linda Lyon, Sue Kelly, Arthur (Jesse) Ferland, Rebecca Stone, Craig Stone, Norman Fajans, Janet Taylor, Paul Taylor, Vicki Stone, Keith Stone, Marilyn Allen, Kaitlin Stone, Doug Grob, Wayne Courser, and Robbin Gabriel.
Interviews with Selectboard Candidates
Lewis Sumner opened with a request that everyone be considerate. We’re all neighbors and friends, he said. Edee Edwards encouraged those present to assume positive intent on the part of others. Selectboard members would pose a series of questions to each applicant, explained Sumner, then the public would have an opportunity to ask questions.
Linda Lyon read a statement which said, in part, that she had been losing sleep over the escalating strife in her chosen hometown of Halifax. (See link at the bottom of this page to read full text.)
Sumner thanked Cara Cheyette for applying, and Cheyette responded with an apology for not being present at the June 29th meeting. Sumner said attempting interviews in addition to addressing other items on the June 29th agenda would have resulted in an overly-long meeting.
Cheyette said she was motivated to apply by “a desire to put my money where my mouth is.” I attend quite a few Selectboard meetings, she said, and often feel critical or frustrated by something I hear. Cheyette said she would like to be better informed and have a better sense of what goes on from the side of town governance. Her skills include a background in mediation; she has the ability to translate complex issues into easy-to-understand terms, and to make common sense decisions about how to handle those issues. Cheyette is an advocate of a five-member Selectboard and believes this interim position is a good prelude to that possibility. Her primary work is as a court-appointed appellate attorney for children and indigent parents involved with DCF and she may begin handling criminal appeals at some point, too. An ability to listen and make fair decisions is a necessity in that position. In mediation, she said, sometimes the best result is when everyone is just a little bit unhappy. Not every complicated issue can be decided down the middle.
How do you see yourself as able to represent everyone in town?, asked Edwards. Cheyette mentioned her mediation experience making decisions in the best interests of the child. You have to collect the facts and make the best decision possible for the most people, and sometimes a governing body has to make a decision in the best long-term interest, even if people don’t see it that way. It’s a matter of not pre-judging things, she added.
Do you have any agenda, asked Sumner. Cheyette sometimes feels the Selectboard is handcuffed to the idea of the lowest bid. She thinks Edwards is occasionally bound by the rules without respect to common sense, and Sumner at times wants to smooth things over without regard to greater discussion. I think the three of us together would strike a nice balance with that, she said. She would like to hear discussion about making “hard” expenditure costs that would save the town money down the road. Her pet project, she added, is to learn why more people don’t come to meetings. I’m thinking about going door-to-door; I’d like to know what motivates people and what holds them back. I think I could be a good colleague and raise good questions, she concluded.
Cheyette said she was prepared to make the time commitment needed to serve on the Board. My schedule is both extremely flexible and inflexible, she added; I have court deadlines but can work on them round the clock. I can be available both evenings and during the day. You can count on me being here. Cheyette addressed a concern raised earlier by Joe Tamburrino regarding her past record with appointments. As interim Planning Commission member I served until the natural expiration of that term, she said, and while I chose not to run for a full term thereafter I took the lead role in revising flood insurance rules as an interim member. As Halifax rep to Rescue, Inc., I served for a year when Christina Moore stepped down, and then resigned when it appeared another project I wanted to undertake created a conflict of interest. When no one stepped up I asked to be reappointed, and served for another year to assure Halifax was being represented.
Do you have experience with municipal affairs, asked Sumner. In my legal career, replied Cheyette I did quite a lot of work on behalf of public authorities and towns. I believe in the public process. In Cambridge I was on several different commissions and I worked in community services for a long time.
The biggest challenges facing the town are money issues and ways to find areas of commonality, said Cheyette. We need to make decisions in ways people perceive as fair. Perception of how decisions are made is almost more important than the decisions themselves.
The Board invited questions from Cheyette, who asked how much time the Board put in. As the fiscal year had just ended, Edwards’ has done analysis showing an average of 2.4 meetings per week in the year before the administrative assistant was hired, and 1.4 meetings per week thereafter. An average meeting lasts at least three hours, and there are advance preparations and follow-up tasks. The Board also assigns liaison duties between other town Boards, and sometimes there are training sessions to attend.
Sumner now gave the audience an opportunity to ask questions. Joe Tamburrino wanted to know what Cheyette’s feelings were on the quarry. Cheyette said she had initially submitted a request for party status in relation to environmental issues and impacts on the town, but she was also undecided at that point. She has since then developed a sense that the project is not consistent with the character of the area. I don’t think that’s the end of the story when sitting in a position of public office, she added; that goes beyond personal opinion. But what I’ve learned would certainly inform my part of the discussion. Would you be able to remain neutral, asked Tamburrino. Yes, answered Cheyette. Is it legal for a Selectboard member to have party status in the proceeding, asked Tamburrino. Stephan Chait advised that having party status in the Act 250 process does not define a position, it simply gives one an avenue to talk. Tamburrino asked again whether Cheyette were neutral. I posted—on Front Porch Forum—about why I could identify with the concerns of the people who were opposing it (the quarry project), and that I think the equities lie with the opponents, responded Cheyette. I’m not clear on what role the Selectboard might play in the decision process but I think I could be fair about it.
Wayne Courser asked how Cheyette would handle an irate citizen calling to complain to her as a Selectboard member. I don’t want to be treated uncivilly, said Cheyette; I hope I would respond respectfully, but at some point I’m going to push back. I would listen for what is behind the anger. Keith Stone had advice for all three of the candidates. When you get complaints about the road crew, he said, you have to step back and listen and follow-up before making a judgment. Some accusations are not based in fact. Stone mentioned being accused of using town equipment to push back private driveways; in fact the grader he was operating was his own. I deal with unfounded or exaggerated allegations in my work, Cheyette said. You need to have correct information before making a judgment.
Sumner thanked Doug Grob for applying. In response to Sumner’s question about motivation, Grob said he had been undecided up to the last day about whether to apply, but he felt the town needed some help and he was willing to fill the need in this interim position. Edwards asked about qualifications. I’ve been in residential construction most of my life, replied Grob, and have worked for some big builders, supervising subcontractors and finish crews, managing schedules, and operating my own business as a self-employed contractor. What do you expect to accomplish on the Board, asked Sumner. My main goal would be to get us together; to encourage people to talk and understand where others are coming from, and to put the town of Halifax first. I don’t want to see taxes go up, I think we need some business in town, jobs for people. I prefer to resolve an issue and move on, rather than argue about something for years. Grob said he had no experience working for municipalities, other than construction work in Londonderry. This would be a learning experience for me, he added.
How do you see yourself as being able to represent everyone in town?, asked Edwards. By being able to listen to people, replied Grob. That is probably one of the most important things about the government. Sumner said the town has a lot of challenges coming up which might take time beyond regular meetings. Grob said he has no problem with that; he works for himself, utilizes subcontractors, and has a flexible schedule. Does the Selectboard attend meetings of other town boards, asked Grob. No, said Sumner and Edwards; they described the liaison process and the regular and special Selectboard meeting schedule. We do serve on the Board of Civil Authority and attend Vermont Yankee training, said Edwards, and she went on to explain open meeting law requirements.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing the town?, asked Edwards. Trying to get everything done within the budget, responded Grob, and keeping the most people happy. Grob did not have any immediate questions for the Board; if I were to get the position I would probably have a lot of questions, he added. Joe Tamburrino asked for Grob’s position on the quarry. I guess I’ve been against the quarry, answered Grob. Would you be able to remain neutral as a Selectboard member, asked Tamburrino. I believe I could, said Grob. I’m opposed to the quarry because of the taxation issue, property devaluation, and loss of revenue. I understand it is the Zoning Board who will make the decision; if it came down to the Selectboard I might have to abstain. Tamburrino asked about Grob’s party status; Grob said he does not think he has party status in the Act 250 process, he has been interested in the local permit hearings. Linda Lyon said getting Act 250 party status is akin to registering to vote; you can be pro, con, neutral.
Craig Stone appreciated Grob’s tax-related concerns. Stone posed a hypothetical question; what would we do if that 1,200 acres (the Denison property) was not taxed anymore? A non-profit entity could come along and have that property, and it would not be on the tax rolls. Edwards said she wanted to allow people to ask questions of the applicants but did not want this to be a hearing focused on a particular issue. Tamburrino clarified Stone’s statement; if a non-profit were to assume ownership of the property in question, the value of that parcel would be deducted from the grand list. Edwards said she understood that, but didn’t believe any of the individual candidates could have an effect on such an event; we don’t have that in our power. Stone said he simply wanted to have the scenario considered.
Becky Stone presented the Board with copies of her resume, and the Board reviewed its contents. Sumner thanked her for her application and asked what motivated her to step forward. Simply that there is a vacancy on the Board, responded Stone, and I think the town could use some help from someone who is qualified and experienced, and sits at the table every week. I’ve been doing this for a dozen years, so I know what it’s like to answer the phone and be an intermediary with the public. Edwards asked Stone to summarize her qualifications, outlined in her resume, for the benefit of the audience. Stone said she moved to Halifax in 2009. She has been doing municipal work since 2000, serving four years as town coordinator in Heath, Massachusetts, and over six years as administrative assistant in Bernardston, Massachusetts. At the time she was hired in Bernardston two Board members were on recall by petition from the voters, the highway superintendent had been fired, the selectmen’s clerk had been fired, the treasurer and town clerk had resigned. The only people remaining in the town office were the accountant, the assessors, and the tax collector. She also worked for the Franklin Regional Transit Authority for a short time before her position was eliminated due to budget cuts, as an administrative assistant in the home care field, and as accounting assistant at Lundgren Honda before being hired this year as town administrator in Guilford.
You’ve answered this to some extent, said Sumner—what do you think you could do for the Board? Stone responded with several questions about the Selectboard meeting schedule and the process by which residents’ needs and concerns were conveyed to the Board. It is important that calls, concerns, and information be channeled through the administrative assistant, she said, and come before the Board in open meeting in a transparent manner. Gabriel outlined the method used to construct meeting agendas. Edwards said that when calls come in Board members try to get them to the right department; road issues are referred to the highway department, for instance. There seem to be more calls to new board members, she said, then they taper off.
Edwards asked Stone how she saw herself as able to represent everyone in the town. Having worked for the town of Heath, with one of the highest tax rates in the state of Massachusetts, answered Stone, I learned how difficult it is to put yourself in the taxpayers’ shoes. I was glad to hear financial liaison was Earl’s responsibility, because budgeting is my biggest strength. At year end you will know where you stand with the budget and come fall we’ll know what could happen with line items that people could have been overtaxed on. The taxpayers don’t get to see financial information until Town Meeting, long after you could have refunded a portion, or used it as an offset, to get your highway facility upgraded, or to cover other small equipment purchases. These decisions should be up to the taxpayers, not the Board. The Board oversees the funds but the taxpayers should be listened to. Edwards said the Board asks the taxpayers at Town Meeting day what they want to do with the surplus if there is one. This fiscal year we asked if we could start a rainy day fund up to a certain amount, she said, and then use the excess to offset taxes.
What about occasional random meetings, asked Edwards. For example at times we meet of a morning with the highway department. Yes, said Stone, as long as I know in advance. I have a 40-hour schedule, but it is flexible. What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing the town, asked Edwards. Right now, filling the open Selectboard seat, responded Stone. I don’t mean to be funny or sarcastic, she continued, but it is a big void to fill; I think you (Edwards) and Lewis have a lot of different opinions. From a distance, I see that the person who fills this position will be making a lot of the decisions for the town. That’s not particular to Halifax—I’ve seen it in a number of other towns. Edwards asked Sumner to clarify his question about agenda. Sumner said he simply wanted to know whether the candidate had any particular agenda issues in mind. I don’t have anything specific, said Stone. I would echo what Doug had to say, and a little of what Cara had to say; everyone brings some good strengths to the table. If you think you want someone who doesn’t need a lot of training, or at some point you want to go to a five-member board, you have two at the table and three candidates here. I’ve thought of withdrawing my name; I don’t want people to think I have my mind made up about certain issues in town. You may start out thinking you have an agenda, but when you’re sitting at the table in a different capacity you can change your mind quickly. I’m not for or against the quarry, I’m simply pro economic development.
When are you going to be making a decision, asked Stone. Sumner and Edwards said they were hoping to do so tonight. Cara Cheyette said she wished the Board had the power to appoint all three candidates and create a five-member board. Cheyette asked whether Stone could see beyond the fact that Sumner had resided in Halifax much longer than Edwards. Absolutely, replied Stone. I have a lot of history with Halifax, but I wasn’t born and raised here, and I still don’t consider myself as from here. I’ve worked for local and international companies, and represented the towns on local, regional, and state levels. I can see outside Windham County; you have to be able to do that. Tamburrino said he would forego his quarry question as Stone had already answered that. The Zoning Board will be making that decision, said Stone.
Edwards suggested turning attention to deliberation. First, as the quarry had been a recurring topic throughout the interviews, she clarified that the Selectboard would have little additional input on the quarry project, though they may have discussions about follow-up on the Act 250 procedure. The local permit is in the hands of the Zoning Board, and the Selectboard does not hear appeals; they would be heard by the Environmental Court. My interest in filling this Selectboard vacancy, is to find someone Lewis and I can both work with well. One of the things I would like in this person is someone who can be a foil for me, someone who can challenge my line of thinking and ask good questions. Sumner commented that he agreed with most of what Edwards said, that he thought they had three good candidates, and he would like to thank them for volunteering. This meeting is a pleasure said Marilyn Allen. A couple of questions have come up requiring more information; it would be good if when that happens someone would follow up with research. Norman Fajans suggested attendance might be better at meetings if we could have a 50/50 raffle. Linda Lyon offered a public service announcement: Joan Courser and a few others have kept the Community Hall alive. Look on Front Porch Forum for the next scheduled meeting. She encouraged people to help with the newsletter, and help with maintenance. That’s an opportunity for us to get together, she added.
Edwards nominated Cara Cheyette to the interim Selectboard position. Sumner said he thought Becky Stone would really help us with finances and the budget; we need all the help we can get on that, it’s a tough thing. I don’t think our budget process is hugely broken, said Edwards. We do a good job of walking through things line by line. We may need to look at things at a high level, and on a longer time line. I think any of the candidates could bring that big picture view. Norm Fajans had a suggestion. It seems as if, Edee, you are liking Cara, he said, and Lewis is favoring Becky. The most practical thing would be to appoint Doug, because you two aren’t going to agree. Edwards nominated Douglas Grob as Selectboard member until the next regular Town Meeting or a special election. Sumner seconded the nomination, which passed, 2-0. Edwards said Grob would bring a good middle perspective to the Board. I have financial and communication skills, she said, but please don’t ask me to look at anything mechanical. Sumner told Grob to see Patty Dow during office hours to take the oath of office.
The meeting was adjourned at 8:28 p.m.