Town legal costs soared in FY18: Parker addresses her attendance

By MIKE DONOGHUE

Dr. Colleen Parker says she is planning to keep her seat on the Shelburne Selectboard – at least for the time being.

Parker’s attendance record was questioned at a recent board meeting, but at Tuesday evening’s meeting, she said she is staying put.

Under Shelburne Selectboard rules the chair has the discretion to request a resignation or seek the removal of a board member after missing three or more scheduled meetings in a six-month period.

Parker said she had discussed in advance with Chairman Jerry Storey that her summer attendance might be a problem.

Records for two months this summer show Parker missed regular meetings on June 12, June 26 and Aug. 14 as well as a special meeting to set the town tax rate July 9. On July 10, minutes note that she arrived at 8:52 p.m., about two hours into the regular board meeting.

Parker offered during Tuesday’s meeting to explain the circumstances for her absences, mentioning three of the occasions. In one case, she had trouble calling in to participate by phone; another absence was due to a family emergency, she said.

She pointed out that scheduling the special meeting July 9 to set the tax rate was one tricky for the board due to several members’ schedules. As it turned out, the meeting date picked was one she could not attend but the board had quorum with two members calling in to participate. The noon meeting lasted 15 minutes.

Parker said addressing poor attendance is left up to the board chair.

“This came up last year when another board member missed 10 meetings last year. And I remember this coming up and I wasn’t in support of a resignation or asking for a resignation, mainly because we are all volunteers,” Parker told the audience. She said she also did not want to create “more drama” by pushing the issue last year.

Parker did not identify the Selectboard member who missed 10 meetings last year. It was not apparent from a quick check Wednesday morning of meeting minutes which member she meant.

Parker said if she believed she was going to continue missing meetings, her position would be different. She said if she believes she can’t do the job any more, she will step aside.

Storey, in prepared written remarks for the meeting, supported Parker.

“In my role as Chair, I have not taken the steps provided for in the Selectboard Rules because I believe her absences resulted from an unusual run of events, both personal and professional, and do not promise to continue,” Storey said. “I am confident that any of us, Colleen included, will recognize the point at which it is not possible to continue serving, as we were elected or appointed and as we would wish to do, and will take the initiative on our own to resign.”

The specific board rule says: “Should a member consistently miss meetings, the Chair shall have the discretion to request either the member’s resignation or removal from the Selectboard by the Selectboard. “Consistently missing meetings” shall be defined as missing three (3) or more of the scheduled meetings in a six-month period.”

The Selectboard met Tuesday because the regular meeting scheduled for last week was not properly warned under Vermont’s Open Meeting Law.

Town’s legal fees

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, Finance Director Peter Frankenburg told the Selectboard that the town of Shelburne is believed to have ended the fiscal year on June 30 in the black. It could come in about $70,000 on the plus side after some accounting adjustments, he noted.

The positive financial report comes even with the town government overspending its legal budget by $195,700, Frankenburg explained.

Shelburne budgeted $60,000 for legal work needed for all the various town departments, but ended up spending $255,689 for that single line item in the budget that ran from July 1, 2017 through June 30 this year.

A large chunk of the overrun is Shelburne’s ongoing unsuccessful legal battle with Vermont Railway in an effort to block a $5.5 million salt storage facility built north of the village off U.S. 7.

Shelburne’s legal arguments have been rejected a couple of times in U.S. District Court in Vermont, which said the town had discriminated against the railroad with a special ordinance. In January, three Selectboard members voted to take the case to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City. There is still no date set for legal arguments in the case.

The budget numbers for legal expenses do not include a $20,000 gift from the nonprofit environmental advocacy group Vermont Natural Resources Council to help fund the appeal. On Jan. 2 with a 3-2 vote, then-Chairman Gary von Stange along with members Jaime Heins and Parker agreed to accept the donation. According to a breakdown, Frankenburg shared with the board, the appeal so far has cost just over $43,000 but officials said that the town is not being charged for costs over the $20,000 figure.

Frankenburg said there was some good budget news:  Revenue for Planning and Zoning building permits exceeded the expected income by $86,000. This was due primarily from fees collected from both the Wake Robin and Rice Lumber building projects. The Wake Robin expansion and improvement project’s cost estimate is $39 million.

The high spending on last fiscal year’s legal fees – 426 percent of the budgeted amount – sparked discussion of whether the town should consider seeking new bids from law firms offering municipal services.

Selectboard member Dr. Josh Dein suggested doing a review now before the town’s contract with its current firm – Monaghan Safar Ducham in Burlington – expires.

Selectboard member Mary Kehoe, who is a lawyer, raised the question of whether Shelburne might consider hiring its own legal counsel. Burlington, South Burlington, and some other Vermont communities and school districts have in-house counsel.

Kehoe suggested having a lawyer on the town payroll might save money based on the $165 hourly rate the current law firm is paid. She noted that the town pays for about 20 hours of legal work each week.

Town resident and attorney Carole Obuchowski said discussion among local lawyers who do municipal work is that Shelburne has excessive legal costs. “There is no getting around it. Our legal expenses have been extraordinary,” she said. “I’m telling you Shelburne has really overspent in the last few years.”

Dein moved to begin a review of legal expenses and possibly develop a bid request. Storey, Kehoe and Dein voted for it; Heins, also a lawyer, and Parker opposed.

The board then voted 5-0 to look into savings for property and casualty insurance. Shelburne is insured through the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and could consider seeking bids.

One Response to "Town legal costs soared in FY18: Parker addresses her attendance"

  1. Sean Moran   September 6, 2018 at 3:30 pm

    We as the people who vote Selectboard members in, have the right to question the Chair if we feel they are not fulfilling their ELECTED position. Sadly Dr. Parker seemed to take offense at the public’s question as to her absences. It was questioned, the Chair put it on the Agenda, and it was handled as it should be. And with that we all should move on. I would like to know who on last years Board missed 10 meetings. Who would have that answer? As to legal- ALL contracts for the city should be revised as often as possible, especially if we can save the town money or if we feel said service is less than expected.

    Reply

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