ANALYSIS: Inconsistency hangs over Chester appointments process

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Several potential members of two Chester town planning and zoning panels have been waiting for months for the Select Board to make appointments and, at its Wednesday, Jan. 18 meeting, the board will be discussing how it will approach the task deciding who will serve.

The methods used in the past vary and the central questions revolve around whether candidates should be interviewed before appointments are made and whether those interviews should be done in closed sessions without the public there to hear what is said.

On one end of the spectrum, most appointments and re-appointments are pro-forma proceedings in which there is either a seat open or a term coming to an end and a select board member makes a motion to appoint and the board votes.

At the other end, the board interviews a candidate or candidates for a position, doing so behind closed doors in executive session. That procedure seems to have originated when expired terms left two seats open on the Development Review Board in 2012.

In a special meeting held on Tuesday, May 1, 2012, the board said that a new procedure would be used. Derek Suursoo, a Select Board member at the time, said that the process was a new way of doing business. According to the minutes of that meeting, Suursoo said that the board typically just re-appointed whoever was in the position, which, he added, was not a good way of doing business.

Over the objections of a number of people present, the board then went into executive session to interview Carla Westine, Amy O’Neil, Kathy Pellett and incumbent Scott Wunderle for two positions on the DRB.

Westine and O’Neil were appointed a month later after the board had received legal advice on the appointments from the town attorney in yet another executive session. The Telegraph reported that at least two of the candidates were shown non-disclosure statements during their interviews and, when asked for a copy of that document, Town Manager David Pisha told The Telegraph that it had been inadvertently deleted from a town office computer.

The following year, on June 5, 2013, the same board reappointed DRB member Harry Goodell and appointed new members Heidi Ladd and Don Robinson without interviews or executive session. Alternates were also reappointed in 2013 and 2014 without regard to the new procedure used in 2012.

But, when Heidi Ladd’s untimely death created a vacancy on the DRB, the board reverted to its 2012 procedure and held a closed door session to interview Phil Perlah before appointing him. Since that time, two new appointments and several reappointments have been made without either interviews or closed door sessions. And since Robinson’s death in August 2015, his position has remained vacant, and the DRB has relied on alternates.

In an interview yesterday, Tuesday, Jan. 10, board member Heather Chase, who replaced Suursoo on the Select Board, told The Telegraph that she was uncertain of the process and had asked for clarification. What she — and other board members — received was a citation from the Vermont Open Meeting Law that stated that the board could legally hold the interviews behind closed doors. Chase said that she asked for an item to be put on the agenda for Jan. 18 so the board could make a definitive decision on how it would make the appointments.

“I’m in favor of doing it in open session personally,” board chair John DeBenedetti said on Tuesday. “But I’m not adverse to holding an executive session for a candidate who wants to be interviewed privately.”

DeBenedetti said that when there are several candidates for one seat “you probably should interview,” but he was uncertain if an interview was necessary when there is one candidate for one seat.

The board is expected to decide how to handle appointments and schedule interviews if warranted at its Jan. 18 meeting.



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  1. Lew Watters says:

    It would appear, the town has not followed good business practices in going about selecting such important positions. Open, transparent and consistent procedures are needed in public service. The question should always be: Who do you serve?