Chester board continues budget work, appoints Zoning Administrator Resident proposes civilian oversight of police

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

At its Dec. 2 meeting, the Chester Select Board continued working on the budget,  department by department, and even converted into its alter ego – The Chester Water Commission – to look at the numbers for 2021.

Highway Department Foreman Kirby Putnam walks the board through his budget. Photos courtesy of SAPA-TV

As has happened in previous meetings, most of the budget lines received very little comment and members praised department heads for holding the line on spending.

Representing the Whiting Library, Trustees Robert Nied and Ed Grossman presented their budget with an appropriation for a stipend to help employees with health insurance. This is part of an ongoing debate over whether the employees of a municipal library are municipal employees and, therefore, eligible for health benefits. Last year, the board agreed to split the cost of the stipend with the library and, last Wednesday, decided to continue that in 2021.

Water and Wastewater Superintendent Jeff Holden left his place at the Select Board table to present his budget and to tell the board that at some point the town will need to drill another well as a backup. He noted that — with the demand for water between 175,000 and 225,000 gallons per day — if there was any problem with the aquifer that feeds the Jeffrey Well there would be no backup and the town would be quickly out of water. Holden did not see that as an emergency, but something to think. He also noted that the pump at the well needs to have a dedicated generator to provide water during emergencies.

To bay or not to bay

Following on a May 6 discussion in which Town Manager Julie Hance posed the question of whether the town could save money by having an in-house mechanic for all of its vehicles including those used by police, fire and ambulance. At that time, she said she would do some investigating and come back with numbers.

Town Manager Julie Hance explains the idea of planning a new bay for the Town Garage

What she found was that the bays in the current garage are not tall enough to accommodate a lift for the larger trucks and the cost of raising the roof of a bay would be prohibitive. Hance said that this is not anything the town will be doing anytime soon. But her questions prompted Kevin Racek, an architect with Russell Construction, to propose designing a new bay at the east end of the garage.

Racek is working on the Public Safety Building and the Town Garage rehab and he noted that doing the design work at the same time as the rehab of the building would be cheaper than doing it in the future and would ensure that the current project supports the future project with access to power, water, sewer and other engineering.

The cost of the design work was estimated at $11,000.

Board member Lee Gustafson asked if Hance had done a cost/benefit analysis and when the board would have to make a decision.

“Pretty soon,” said Hance.

After a discussion in which board chair Arne Jonynas asked what could be done now to prepare for the future without a full design, Gustafson asked if there was a middle ground where the engineering would be done, but not the architecture.

Hance said she would be talking with Racek the following day and find out.

Jill Barger to replace Normyle as ZA

With the retirement of Michael Normyle as Zoning Administrator, the Chester Planning Commission interviewed four applicants for the job and recommended Jill Barger, an attorney who recently moved to Chester.  Hance told the board she had interviewed Barger and found her to be a “great fit” for the town, noting her legal background and the problem the town has had with enforcement of various ordinances.

New Zoning Administrator Jill Barger talks about zoning enforcement

Gustafson asked Barger her philosophy on development, the environment and economic growth and vibrancy.

Barger said her main concern was the quality of life in Chester. “That requires people to follow some basic rules and standards that the community has set out,” said Barger, adding that making sure the environment was safe may sometimes “step on some toes” with what people want to do. “Beautification of a community and maintaining beautification is very important.”

Saying that some environmental regulations are “over the top,” Gustafson asked that Barger apply some common sense to the development process.

The board then approved a three-year term for Barger.

Call for civilian oversight of police

As the board has been looking at police policies, Chester resident Leslie Thorsen called on them to institute civilian oversight of the police. Thorsen, who has appeared before the board in the past regarding her complaint against a Chester Police officer who she said acted unprofessionally in trying to serve a subpoena on her.

Leslie Thorsen, foreground right, proposes civilian oversight of police in Chester

At its last meeting, the board heard from Hance that the town had sent draft policies to the Vermont League of Cities and Towns for review by Trevor Whipple, a former Burlington Police officer who was hired by VLCT.

Thorsen told the board that sending the town’s policy to VLCT for review was more for liability avoidance instead of to protect citizens. She added that the VLCT  is not a citizens rights organization. Thorsen also noted that Gov. Phil Scott has asked the Department of Public Safety to come up with models for citizen oversight for his consideration.

She asked that the creation of a citizen oversight board be put on a select board agenda in the future.

In other business

Fire Warden Jeff Holden says adding a deputy now will make for a smoother transition in the future

The board appointed Ben Whalen to the position of Deputy Fire Warden. Current Fire Warden Jeff Holden told the board that he wanted to get someone started to take over his position. He noted that much of the work relies on building a rapport with people in the town. The Fire Warden is responsible for issuing burn permits and enforcing burn regulations.

Whalen, who is a Chester firefighter and instructor at the state’s fire academy, is also a former select board member. The board then appointed Whalen for a five-year term beginning on Jan. 1, 2021. Hance noted that the annual salary, which is paid through the state is $20.

Hance noted that under more restrictive Covid guidelines, police are not supposed to be routinely running radar for speeding. Board member Leigh Dakin complained that log trucks heading north on Rt. 35 are doing “at least” 50 mph when they pass her house. While police can’t do radar stops, they are still able to pull someone over for speeding when it becomes a safety issue.

Dakin has also brought the problem of tractor-trailers parking on the Main Street in front of the old Jiffy Mart building and making visibility difficult for people turning there. Hance said she had contacted VTrans and had received no response but found that a crew had installed posts with reflectors there to prevent parking.

The question of whether to hold an in-person Town Meeting in March or shift to Australian ballot was briefly discusses and added to the Dec. 16 agenda for a decision to be put on the annual warning.

Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this article the name of the new zoning administrator was misspelled. We regret the error and it has been corrected.

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