Select board hears from residents for, against transitional housing

By Shawn Cunningham

A small number of Chester residents turned out at the Wednesday, May 21, Select Board meeting to voice concern over a proposal by the Justice Center of Springfield  to buy or rent a four-bedroom house in Chester to serve as transitional housing for inmates being released from the prison in Springfield.

Wendi Germain of the listens to an audience member during a Select Board meeting focusing on transitional housing. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Wendi Germain, a Chester resident who works at the Justice Center, listens to an audience member during a Select Board meeting focusing on transitional housing. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Justice Center representatives were hoping to secure a letter of support from the Select Board so that it could move forward.

Shop owner Michael Alon said he was shocked at how few people showed up.

Attendees asked what would happen if the board did not provide a letter. Wendi Germain of the Justice Center responded that without the letter they could not secure a house and the inmates would be housed in apartments with less supervision and support.

“We are already here,” said Wendy Williams, also of the Justice Center. Inmates, she said, are  housed in apartments in Chester now. “And those don’t have the security cameras, buzzers or supervisor that the house would have.”

Germain said that consolidating the people currently in two apartments into one house would make the situation easier and more secure, noting that she and Wendy Williams both live in Chester and are available on call for any problems.

Some in the audience questioned why transitional prisoners could not be housed in Springfield and kept from coming to Chester. According to Germain, many of the released prisoners are from Chester and surrounding communities and by an arrangement that Springfield made when it agreed to take the prison, only Springfield residents can be housed in Springfield.  Germain added that under federal laws, transitional and released inmates cannot be kept out of a community such as Chester.

Jay Joseph and Josh Rutherford said there is a high recidivism rate of released prisoners from Vermont Corrections facilities. But Germain said that it’s not people who come out to transitional housing that re-offend but those who are directly released into a community.

Betty Nunnikhoven recounted that she and her husband have been volunteering at the prison for nine years and have taken in a number of inmates making the transition to life outside of prison. “The only ones who don’t return (to prison) are the ones who come out with good support,” said Nunnikhoven. “It’s changed our lives and given us a whole new perspective.”

Those for and against the transitional housing proposal appeared at the Select Board meeting.

Those for and against the transitional housing proposal appeared at the Select Board meeting.

“Springfield was paid a lot of money to take the prison,” said Ron Patch. “It’s an insult for me to have to take their baggage. I urge the board not to give this letter.”

“They are all around town,” Nunnikhoven said, referring to former inmates in the Chester community. “They’ve paid the penalties and deserve a chance.”

Select Board member Derek Suursoo thanked those attending for a civil discussion, while select board chairman John DeBenedetti said that the board would not discuss the proposal in public but rather consider its response in an executive session with advice from town attorney Jim Carroll of Middlebury.

Board member Arne Jonynas questioned making it a private discussion. “Saying no to this is not going to make our town any safer,” said Jonynas. “I see people caring for people, trying to make things better.”

Board member Tom Bock said he had a sense that there was an element of risk, that the risk was greater with the house in Chester than without.

“This isn’t really Mayberry,” said Police Chief Rick Cloud. “There aren’t just one or two (transitioning prisoners in town.) There are a lot and this will get support for some of them.”

“This isn’t really Mayberry. There aren’t just one or two (transitioning prisoners in town.) There are a lot and this will get support for some of them.”

Rick Cloud
Chester Police chief

“Not knowing what’s going on is bliss,” said Chester resident John Adler, “They are already here.  If you don’t know that, life is good. When you know it, you get excited.”

After more than an hour in executive session, the board returned at 12:15 a.m. and voted unanimously to authorize Town Manager David Pisha to work with attorney Jim Carroll to craft a letter that will be an “appropriate” response.

Asked whether that response would be positive or negative, board members refused to say. “I can’t comment,” said Suursoo.

Paul Debole of

Paul Debole of  AT&T discusses upgrading the town-owned radio  tower at the Pinnacle.

AT&T tower lease

Paul Debole, a representative of AT&T, appeared before the board to discuss the proposed lease for use of the town owned radio tower at the Pinnacle. Noting that this was part of upgrading to 4G, Debole said that AT&T would put  $60,000 to $70,000 worth of deferred maintenance into the town’s tower as part of its own upgrade of equipment.

DeBenedetti noted that there are a number of projects going on with the tower including another company leasing space and the upgrade of town antennas, then asked if AT&T’s work was for telephone or television. Debole responded that AT&T would be using the tower for cell phone use, especially data that is demanding a lot of bandwidth.

The board asked about the possibility of one carrier interfering with the signals of another or with the signals of the town. According to Debole, any added signals must not interfere with existing signals and it’s up to the owner of the new equipment to correct any interference. He noted there’s about 50 towers in Vermont and a lot of cooperation among the companies that operate them. “I’ve been doing this for 17 years,” said Debole, “and I haven’t had this come up as an issue.”

Suursoo noted that the $9,000 a year lease was a good deal but added “for you.” Suursoo felt the lease was not rich enough for the town and said that since this a contract negotiation, it should be done in executive session. He and member Bill Lindsey felt that the annual escalator that raised the rent every year was not high enough.

“I’m kinda happy,” said Jonynas, noting the value of the work on the tower and the increased income for the town.

Debole said that these days upgrades are coming so fast that the board should consider that they won’t be stuck with this contract for long.

The board decided to take up the question in the executive session toward the end of the meeting and call Debole on his way back to Boston that evening.

Other business

  • The board voted 3-1 to approve the Emergency Operations Plan that is submitted to the State of Vermont. The board was especially interested in the levels of emergency incident command and whether enough people were sufficiently trained to handle emergencies. Noting that an appendix was missing, Suursoo voted against the plan saying, “I can’t approve something that I don’t know what I’m approving.”
  • The Select Board once again postponed discussion of changing the rates charged for municipal water to raise enough money to pay for operating the system. Board members have repeatedly said that the rates need to rise substantially, but have not settled on a rate schedule. DeBenedetti announced that the topic would be on the June 4 agenda.
  • Board member and Planning Commission chairman Tom Bock confirmed that the commission had held a meeting for public comment and would be meeting again to discuss any changes that should be made before the sending the bylaws to the Select Board for hearings and a vote. The next planning commission meeting will be held at 6  7 p.m. Monday, June 2 at Town Hall, 556 Elm St.
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  1. Diana Ashworth says:

    Wendi Germain – My response was triggered by reactions to this Rutland Herald article. In particular, I was concerned by the questions posed by Springfield residents.

    Rutland Herald: THURSDAY, JANUARY 12, 2012
    “Grant application for halfway house approved
    Springfield gave the Springfield Restorative Justice Center the go-ahead to establish a halfway house for former prisoners.
    See “Comments” below for answers to questions and concerns from Wendi Germain, executive director of the Springfield Restorative Justice Center.”

  2. In response to Diana Ashworth…The Springfield Restorative Justice Center currently has one client in Springfield. She is in her own apartment and doing extremely well! I don’t know what you’re referring to when you say “There has been a lot of problems with housing run by this group in Springfield.” We do not run a halfway house in Springfield nor have we EVER had any problems here. I think you may have us mixed up with some other situation? Facts would be much appreciated. Please don’t accuse us of things we have nothing to do with. Thanks!!

  3. Diana Ashworth says:

    There has been a lot of problems with housing run by this group in Springfield. A whole lot. Springfield made the decision to bring the prison into their town, and the problems Springfield has since they made that decision are very disturbing. If there are released prisoners living in Chester, it would seem that they are doing well enough to live in an apartment. Do we want parolees in town who need to be in a halfway house that will need that much supervision? Someone needs to speak with Springfield residents to evaluate the seriousness of the problems that this group has brought into town with their halfway houses.