After meeting with a mediator, Shelburne selectboard member Dr. Colleen Parker and Volunteer Fire Chief Jerry Ouimet have agreed to put their differences behind them, drop their ethics complaints and a pending lawsuit, and move forward.
The mediated settlement ends two complaints before the Shelburne Ethics Committee and a civil lawsuit Parker filed against the fire chief and six members of the ethics panel.
“We have agreed to withdraw our respective ethics complaints, and to dismiss all litigation or claims arising from them. We will both continue to work on behalf of Shelburne to support and improve our community,” says the agreement signed by Ouimet and Parker’s lawyer, Michael Regan of Shelburne.
The Shelburne News first reported the tentative agreement, subject to the document signing, on the newspaper’s website and its Facebook page on Tuesday afternoon.
“We are both dedicated to doing what is best for the Town of Shelburne, even if we may have disagreed at times on specific topics,” the four-paragraph joint statement noted.
“Dr. Parker in her comments did not intend to impugn Mr. Ouimet’s integrity and she appreciates his work as fire department chief.”
Also: “Mr. Ouimet respects Dr. Parker’s responsibilities and obligations as a member of the Selectboard and appreciates her service on the Selectboard.”
The agreement averted a public hearing Tuesday night to consider Ouimet’s ethics complaint against Parker over questions she asked him at a Sept. 26 meeting that he says demeaned his honesty, integrity and expertise. The September meeting was televised and is available online.
Tuesday’s hearing also was expected to consider Parker’s subsequent cross-complaint against Ouimet that maintained the chief’s claim was baseless and defamed her.
In addition, Parker filed a civil lawsuit in Vermont Superior Court Nov. 29 against the fire chief and the six members of the Ethics Committee, claiming they all had subjected her to extreme emotional distress.
Lynn also filed a letter with Little withdrawing the complaint by Ouimet against Parker.
“Jerry is pleased with the outcome,” Pietro Lynn, Ouimet’s lawyer, said Tuesday evening. “He is looking forward to continuing to serve the residents of Shelburne as their volunteer fire chief.”
Attempts to reach Regan were unsuccessful on Tuesday.
The independent mediator in the case was veteran lawyer Ritchie Berger, who has lived in Shelburne for more than 25 years. He said that the parties came in with open minds.
“We all live in a great town. Everybody put the town’s interests front and center and got past this,” Berger said.
Selectboard member Jaime Heins said much credit goes to Berger for his “extraordinary efforts” over several days. Berger agreed to mediate with the parties for free.
“We are thankful that an amicable agreement came without ethics hearings or court hearings. It allows everybody to move forward,” Heins said.
The final stamp of approval came Tuesday night when the Ethics Committee officially dismissed the two pending complaints.
The mediation approach came together at a special meeting of the Shelburne selectboard on Saturday to see if a last-minute peace accord was possible with Parker, Ouimet and the town’s Ethics Committee.
The selectboard asked its newest member, Heins, who was appointed about three weeks earlier, and Town Manager Joe Colangelo to contact the parties about bringing in a neutral mediator. Soon Berger was consulting with the parties by phone and email in conversations that continued during the weekend and into Monday.
Quick action was needed because the Ethics Committee was scheduled to meet Tuesday evening to consider Ouimet’s initial complaint and Parker’s cross-complaint.
Two other issues were pending: Parker’s lawyer asked the ethics committee to reconsider whether there was probable cause for the claims against his client. Ouimet’s lawyer maintained – and was supported by the town manager – that the fire chief is not covered by the town’s ethics ordinance. Those questions also are considered closed under the settlement.
Saturday’s selectboard meeting on Saturday lasted about 90 minutes. Because the meeting room had been rented by a homeowners association, the three dozen residents and town officials had to vacate the room at 10 a.m. Most squeezed into the nearby town administration offices to finish the meeting. Some sat on the floor to hear the board’s discussion.
There was strong sentiment in the group for trying to come to a peaceful settlement. Dr. Steven Metz, the first speaker from the audience, suggested that the feud could be over quickly. “All could be resolved with a simple apology from Dr. Parker to Chief Ouimet,” the retired veterinarian said.
Ouimet and Parker did not attend the meeting, but their spouses did. Parker’s husband, Dr. Craig Bartlett, recorded the proceedings on a phone; of about a dozen speakers, he was the only one to defend Parker.
Resident Sean Moran said he considered the mediation effort somewhat a “Hail Mary pass” because of the time crunch, but thought every attempt should be made. “This has gone on much too long,” said Moran, also noting how Shelburne’s problems have become the talk of the area.