Chester prohibits dual board memberships, sometimes; reviews dept. budgets

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2016 Telegraph Publishing, LLC

After nearly a year and a half of discussing a conflict of interest policy, the Chester Select Board resolved a final sticking point last Wednesday, voting to close the door on dual memberships on the Planning Commission and Development Review Boards. But they left the key under the mat.

Originally proposed by board member Heather Chase in the first year of her term, the conflict of interest policy was intended to be discussed hand-in-hand with a purchasing policy, especially as it relates to the bidding of town jobs and materials.

But over the months, the purchasing policy fell to the wayside while the board regularly delved into issues of conflict of interest, beginning with a model policy provided by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and then adding several wrinkles including “bias” as a “predisposition” that “does not leave the mind perfectly open to conviction.” Another addition would make it a conflict to participate in a decision that benefits a group or organization of which a public officer is a member of anything from a church to the snowmobile club.

Board member Ben Whalen - who is also a captain in the Chester Fire Dept. - recusing himself during a discussion of that organizations budget Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Board member Ben Whalen – who is also a captain in the Chester Fire Dept. – recusing himself during a discussion of that organizations budget Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Both of those were removed over time, but two restrictions on participation in town government are now part of the policy. First, a select board member may not serve on either the Planning Commission or the Development Review Board. And a member of either of those boards may not serve on the other. But this is where that key comes in.

Over the objections of chairman John DeBenedetti, the board adopted an out that allows someone to be appointed to both boards if a vacancy is not filled for three months. Board members Arne Jonynas and Ben Whalen cited a spirit of compromise for their positions.

“If a person has predisposed himself to a position,” argued DeBenedetti, “I’m resting my hat on having a separate person” serving on a board. In effect, the argument is that no one who is appointed to a town board should have an opinion on any issue.

While members of the audience cited state statute that allows membership on both planning and zoning boards, DeBenedetti argued that the law says they “may” serve but he felt that a higher standard meant for more transparency.

But until last year, with DeBenedetti in the chair, the board appointed and re-appointed two people who fit the description of what the new policy bans. Tom Bock was a Select Board member and member of the Planning Commission and Harry Goodell serving on Planning and the DRB. DeBenedetti said that those were the only dual memberships he was aware of but former Select Board member Bill Lindsay said that he had served on planning and the Zoning Board of Adjustment, the precursor of the DRB.

In addition to the “three month” wording that passed, Chase put forward alternate wording discouraging service on both boards, while allowing the Select Board the leeway to appoint someone to serve on both “upon articulating a rational basis to do so.”Chase felt that the three-month wording did not reflect the board’s discussion at its previous meetings when the members agreed on an idea but sent the document back to VLCT for legally correct wording.

The open questions of a purchasing and bidding policy review and the expansion of the Planning Commission suggested by several residents were left for future agendas.

Five department budgets get a review

The finger print machine that Chester Police were able to get from the consolidation of the Rockingham and Brattleboro State Police barracks

The finger print machine that Chester Police were able to get from the consolidation of the Rockingham and Brattleboro State Police barracks

The heads of the Police, Fire, Ambulance, Recreation and Cemetery departments each took their turns answering questions from the board on their respective budgets.

Police Chief Rick Cloud told the board that he is down one officer, there are 38 towns in Vermont that are hiring and that the Vermont State Police is having a shortfall in recruitment. The good news is that he was able to hire Andy Brothers as a replacement for Matt Wilson and he had two people in town who are interested in the open job and are already certified as police officers.

Cloud also said that with the State Police barracks moving farther away, processing suspects would mean traveling farther out of town and paying fees for the fingerprinting and mugshots. But, according to Cloud, a machine that does all of that became available when the Rockingham and Brattleboro barracks merged in Westminster and he was able to get it. The machine sells for about $35,000 and the fingerprint scanner alone goes for $10,000. He said that Chester does not have to buy the machine, but just pay for the service contract — about $4,500 a year.

Cloud said it would be used for processing an average of 50 to 75 arrests per year but is also available free of charge for fingerprinting residents who need the service for jobs and other uses.

Fire Chief Matt Wilson explained that the Fire Department cannot charge for a call except where hazardous materials are involved or in certain types of forest fires.

Wilson noted that a new front-line fire engine was coming and that he tries to avoid taking the town’s tanker on as many runs as possible, saying that it’s not in great shape and he is trying to conserve it. And because he pulls tankers from other towns through mutual aid, other equipment is not necessarily available to the Chester department quickly including a ladder truck which Chester now pulls from Ascutney.

Chester Ambulance Coordinator Dan Cook outlines the service's budget

Chester Ambulance Coordinator Dan Cook outlines the service’s budget

Board members discussed future equipment needs and the limitations of regional equipment sharing. Wilson pointed to Bellows Falls, which has a large number of volunteer departments to call on within just a few miles. By comparison, Chester is widely spread out with many of its mutual aid partners coming more than 10 miles.  Wilson explained that the way houses are currently constructed with lots of angles on roofs is a problem for placing a ladder on a roof so a ladder truck is often needed for large structures.

During discussions of department salaries and truck purchases, board member Ben Whalen —  who is also a captain in the Fire Department — left the board table and sat in the audience acknowledging a conflict of interest in the situation.

Ambulance co-ordinator Dan Cook explained how the new full-time employee is taking some of the burden off of him and raising the number of times the service can respond without calling mutual aid on weekdays when volunteers are working and unavailable. Some board members asked if there was downtime could she help out at the Town Office.

And DeBenedetti reminded Recreation Director Matt McCarthy that programs are supposed to be self supporting. McCarthy said that for the most part they are, but there can be some pretty big fluctuations in a small town.

‘It’s about the process’ in issuing building permit

Just before adjournment, Chester resident Kelly Arrison asked what was happening with the complaint — made at a previous meeting — about a permit issued for a building that is intended for a use that does not yet exist. “This is not about the property and it’s not about those people,” said Arrison, referring to the property owners. “But it is about the process.” Arrison asked if the town’s attorney had any answers yet.

Town Manager David Pisha said that Jim Carroll had been very busy but added that the Select Board has to be careful not to know too much about the case since they could be in the position of sitting as a quasi-judicial body regarding this.

Chase asked that Carroll give the board a better understanding of what Pisha was explaining when he appeared before the board the following night.

In the town manager form of government, the Select Board acts as a quasi-judicial board in cases of employee discipline, hearing appeals for punishments or terminations handed out by the town manager.

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