UPDATE: MEETING TUESDAY – The new temporary Ethics Committee announced Friday that it has scheduled its first meeting for Tuesday, Nov. 7, 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. at the town offices. The agenda is posted at shelburnevt.org under Ethics Committee.
By LISA SCAGLIOTTI
and MIKE DONOGHUE
Developments with the Shelburne Ethics Committee have taken several unusual and significant twists in the past week, most recently involving the Selectboard on Monday night appointing a temporary replacement ethics panel to review a formal pending complaint against an Ethics Committee member.
The committee also canceled the Monday hearing to review the formal complaint by volunteer Fire Chief Jerry Ouimet against Selectboard member Dr. Colleen Parker over comments she made to him at a public meeting in September.
The committee said a scheduling conflict in that case was to blame – Parker was reportedly unavailable to appear for that hearing, which has not been rescheduled yet.
Parker, however, was available by telephone Monday night for the special Selectboard meeting where the board acted on a request made Friday afternoon by the Ethics Committee to “promptly appoint” a temporary replacement panel to consider a so-far undisclosed complaint.
Ethics Committee Chair Lee Suskin had recused himself from considering the complaint and vice chairman Tom Little served as acting chairman. Alternate Pete Gadue sat in for Suskin during a Wednesday night meeting.
Afterward, Little released a memorandum saying that the ethics committee received a complaint on Oct. 20 against one of its members. It discussed the matter in closed-door sessions on Oct. 21 and 25, Little wrote, and the group decided it “could not, in good conscience, consider the substance of the complaint as to do so would create an intractable dilemma.”
The committee minus Suskin at that point agreed “that the spirit and letter of the ordinance compel them to recuse themselves from the matter, prior to any probable cause determination.”
The ethics ordinance specifies that the complaint, the name of the target, and the person making the complaint can be made public only once probable cause for the complaint has been found. Should the committee not find cause for a complaint, it would be dropped and kept confidential.
With Suskin recused, the other five members, including alternate Peter Gadue, participated in the decision to withdraw as a group.
An unusual request
The unusual request then went to the Selectboard, which convened a special meeting Monday evening attended by about 30 people. Chair Gary von Stange and Parker participated by phone; the other members were present in the meeting room at the town offices.
With the town offices closed over the weekend, the selectboard had the agenda posted on the town website. The meeting was also on the Shelburne News website.
Each board member stated that they had no knowledge of the details of the complaint in question.
“There’s absolutely no knowledge on this board as to the nature of the complaint,” said board member Jerry Storey.
The discussion then turned to how the Selectboard would go about choosing a temporary ethics panel to take on the task. The ethics ordinance directs the Selectboard to solicit volunteers from among residents who are willing to serve on an ethics committee.
The board, however, came to Monday’s meeting with a roster of names for the replacement committee, having recruited people over the weekend.
Von Stange described how he emailed the board the news of the Ethics Committee’s request and then spoke individually with each member — except Dr. Josh Dein — about how to proceed. Von Stange left a voicemail message for Dein, who said he didn’t return the call because the message didn’t ask him to call back.
Dein objected at Monday’s meeting to how the proposed panel was assembled.
“I’m uncomfortable with the way this process has developed,” Dein said. He took issue with the discussion “happening on the telephone without benefit of the community’s knowledge.”
Storey acknowledged that this approach did skip a public call for volunteers but pointed out that would take more time. He noted that the complaint in question was already 10 days old.
“I’m seeking a balance of what’s in the community’s best interest at this point,” Storey told the audience.
Public’s role missing
Dein said he appreciated the board’s desire to handle the complaint in a timely manner, but he objected to doing it in a way that would disenfranchise people.
“I would like to see a more fully engaged public in this process,” Dein said.
Von Stange defended the move to appoint people Monday by noting that the Ethics Committee, in Little’s memo, asked that the Selectboard “promptly appoint” a temporary panel.
Storey then read a list of five names to be appointed as the new committee: Roger Preis as the “convenor,” Bruce Lisman, Josh Simonds, Dr. Anne Dixon and Brian Waxler. An additional three were listed to serve as alternates: Ritchie Berger, Ted Johnson and Ann Hogan.
Alternates may be needed because appointees, when they see the complaint in question, may determine they have a conflict of interest that would prevent them from serving on the committee.
The board voted 4-1 to appoint the new temporary ethics committee; Dein cast the no vote. This was the last meeting for Selectboard member John Kerr, who recently resigned, listing Oct. 31 as his final day to serve.
Several audience members made comments during the discussion, none of which supported how the board approached the appointments.
Sean Moran called the board’s move “clandestine,” saying it lacked transparency, a term the chair often uses to refer to the board’s work.
At the least, Linda Riell said, Dein should have been included in the discussion on how to proceed. “Gary should have called Josh back,” she said. “It’s up to the leader to make sure every member is heard.”
After the meeting, Preis said he couldn’t say how quickly the committee would proceed. He said he didn’t know all of the individuals and had just gotten a copy that day of the ethics ordinance.
As of Wednesday, before the Shelburne News went to print, no meeting had been scheduled yet for the new panel.
Adding another wrinkle, Town Manager Joe Colangelo also questions whether the Ethics Committee can hear a complaint against the fire chief, saying the chief is not covered by the ethics ordinance.
Colangelo told the Shelburne News he considers the volunteer chief a town employee who is subject to the town’s personnel policies, which the manager oversees. Such employees are not covered by the Ethic Committee’s reach.
Tom Little said the committee interprets Ouimet’s role as a public official who gets a stipend as the volunteer fire chief.
Colangelo, as of last week’s regular Selectboard meeting, has also recused himself from discussion about the Ethics Committee, saying he had a conflict of interest, but he did not elaborate. He said he also will not work with the temporary ethics committee, nor will he authorize any money for it to spend.