Temporary Ethics Committee: No basis for controversial complaint

The temporary replacement panel for the Shelburne Ethics Committee voted unanimously Tuesday that there are no grounds to proceed with an Oct. 20 complaint about a possible violation of the town’s Ethics and Conflict of Interest Ordinance.

Under the committee rules, the complaint — including the target and the complainer — remains confidential because it was deemed baseless under the ordinance, according to Roger Preis, chairman of the temporary committee.

The target of the complaint is believed to be Lee Suskin, the chair of the regular ethics committee. Suskin had recused himself from any consideration of the complaint once the details became known to him.

On Oct. 25, the rest of the ethics committee continued to consider the complaint behind closed doors, but later came back into public session. The acting chair, Tom Little, eventually disclosed that the remainder of the board was withdrawing from considering the complaint.

In a memo two days later explaining its actions, the committee said that the Oct. 20 complaint was made “against one of its members.”

The Selectboard named a temporary ethics committee on Oct. 30 to handle the most recent complaint — one of three filed in the last month.

Attempts to reach Suskin after the decision were unsuccessful.

This latest complaint is believed to have been filed by Town Manager Joe Colangelo, who withdrew from all discussion about the Ethics Committee at least twice during a recent Selectboard meeting, on the grounds he had a possible conflict of interest. Colangelo also has declined to comment to the Shelburne News on whether he filed the complaint, was the target, or had nothing to do with the complaint. He sent a note saying he would not be assisting the temporary committee in its work.

Colangelo declined comment Tuesday afternoon following the decision, noting the process remains confidential.

Colangelo and Suskin had differences over efforts by the Ethics Committee to publicly post details of two other recent complaints.

Those two complaints — for which probable cause has been found — are still awaiting hearings before the regular ethics committee.

Shelburne Volunteer Fire Chief Jerry Ouimet filed the first complaint against Selectboard member Dr. Colleen Parker for comments she made during a public meeting Sept. 26.

Parker, in her response, denied the claim and filed a cross-complaint against Ouimet, claiming his assertions were bogus and defamatory.

How to share information
Suskin had directed that public records about the Ouimet complaint and Parker’s response be placed on the town website. The minutes of the Oct. 13 meeting, written by Town Clerk Diana Vachon, said the public documents could be found on the town’s website. Colangelo later ordered the documents removed from the Shelburne website.

In an email obtained by the Shelburne News through a public records request, Colangelo took exception to Suskin having Ouimet’s complaint and Parker’s response and cross-complaint posted on the town website.

“Lee — You are not the website manager; I am. At a minimum you should have discussed with me the documents you want to have online. I have asked Betty to remove the two documents from the ethics committee website until we talk. I don’t see anything in the ordinance stating that these types of documents MUST go online,” Colangelo wrote Suskin at 10:36 a.m. Oct. 18.

About four hours later, Colangelo sent Suskin another email, also obtained by the Shelburne News.

“Lee — I expect a response as to why you didn’t go through the proper decision-making channels regarding content for the website or please point me to a document that provides you unilateral authority to determine what goes on the town website and what is left off? Our policy is not simply that we put all public documents online so that is not the single litmus test used and I’m curious why you wouldn’t have contacted me first,” Colangelo said.

Two days later, the unknown complaint was filed.

The Shelburne News later wrote Colangelo to see if Suskin responded to his two emails.

“Nope. That was the extent of the exchange,” Colangelo wrote.

When the Ethics Committee met Oct. 21, Suskin advised the panel he was recusing himself from sitting on the two pending complaints and from a new complaint because of the appearance of a personal conflict of interest.

After a subsequent meeting Oct. 25, Little wrote that the remaining members of the group decided they “could not, in good conscience, consider the substance of the complaint as to do so would create an intractable dilemma.”

The committee, still without Suskin, agreed “that the spirit and letter of the ordinance compel them to recuse themselves from the matter, prior to any probable cause determination.”

Following that move, the Selectboard last week appointed a temporary ethics panel to proceed with deciding the merits of the complaint in question.

Changes needed
The temporary committee began meeting Tuesday at 11 a.m. with about a dozen local residents attending. The committee eventually met behind closed doors for just over two hours before returning to public session to say there was no probable cause to further review the complaint.

Following the 5-0 vote, Preis read a statement on behalf of the temporary panel:

“The complaint did raise real and substantial concerns about the town governance; they did not, however, rise to the level required under the ordinance. The Ethics Pro Tempore Committee has concerns about [whether] the ethics procedures and possibly Ethics Ordinance are fairly applied and government decisions and policy made in proper channels of government structure,” Preis said.

“Each of us strongly believes that every town of Shelburne official, elected and appointed, has an obligation to speak civilly with and listen to each other and their fellow citizens,” he said. “We hope the town will move forward in that spirit and heal existing wounds.”

The first order of business on Tuesday was to get the five temporary members and three alternates sworn in by Vachon, the town clerk. She took a break from running the special town election to attend the meeting.

Preis was elected the chair and Bruce Lisman was voted vice chair, both without opposition.

“Best campaign I’ve ever run,” cracked Lisman, an unsuccessful candidate for governor in the 2016 Republican primary against eventual winner Phil Scott.

Others on the temporary committee were Josh Simonds, Brian Waxler, and Dr. Anne Dixon. Also in the opening session and closed-door conference were the three alternates: Ritchie Berger, Ted Johnson, and Ann Hogan.

Dixon left near the close of the executive session and, when the committee reconvened in public, Berger became a voting member. The committee voted unanimously on two motions: to come out of closed-door session and to take no action.

Before the temporary committee went into executive session, members agreed to one change in the rules that they planned to follow. The committee said it might want to solicit a response from the target of the complaint before making a final decision on probable cause. The committee said the target could be given 72 hours to respond and the committee would meet again to decide whether to hold a hearing, or that the complaint wasn’t valid and the file sealed.

Local resident Sean Moran also suggested some temporary members selected by a majority of the Selectboard may have to disqualify themselves. He noted some people knew those involved in the complaint and might have served in various capacities.

Preis said any potential conflicts of interest would be addressed first behind closed doors and later in public.

The appointment of the temporary committee last week by the Selectboard has come under fire from some residents for lack of transparency. Instead of soliciting names from the public, some Selectboard members called up friends over the weekend and recruited them. No effort was made to ask residents at the Selectboard meeting if they were interested. One Selectboard member, Dr. Josh Dein, said he was not asked to suggest people to serve on the committee.

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