Chester board reaffirms paper of record decision, adds The Commons as well Members call Press Association's claims 'condescending,' 'bullying'

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The Chester Select Board reaffirmed its March 18 decision to name The Chester Telegraph the town’s paper of record last Wednesday, but also decided to add a printed paper – The Commons – for its required legal notices. The choice reflected the board’s displeasure with the way The Vermont Journal and Vermont Press Association (VPA) reacted to its move to a digital newspaper, which, according to board members, included the Journal’s threat to bring a class action lawsuit against the town.

Board Chair Arne Jonynas complained that the Journal’s first reaction to Chester naming The Telegraph as paper of record was to threaten to sue the town. Images courtesy of SAPA-TV

Before its April 7 meeting, the board held a forum to get comment from Chester residents. But mainly it got long statements from Journal publisher Shawntae Stillwell, Rutland Herald editor Steve Pappas (who is also a director of the VPA) and VPA Executive Director Mike Donoghue. Stillwell accused board members of violating their oaths of office.

Then last Wednesday, April 21, just hours before the meeting, the board received an email from another VPA director, Lisa Loomis, who is the editor and co-owner of the Valley Reporter and a clarification from Secretary of State Jim Condos.

At the meeting, members called the VPA arguments condescending and said they felt they were being bullied into changing their minds. Some didn’t stop there.

Board member Lee Gustafson said he could not trust the Journal

“I was very disappointed in the tone, disappointed in the word choices and honestly I felt that we were being bullied into changing the decision we made,” said board member Lee Gustafson. “And my recommendation at this point would be to never, ever use the Vermont Journal again. I just don’t feel I can trust them. We’ve had issues with them in the past so if we are going to move forward with a ‘paper’ paper of record then I would not be comfortable using the Vermont Journal.”

Board member Leigh Dakin noted that the town was willing to mail physical copies of notices to people who asked to be put on a mailing list

Member Leigh Dakin noted that the town had said it would mail public notices to anyone who asked to be put on a mailing list.

Board member Heather Chase thought that the arguments were not congruent saying that a paper that is mailed to everyone isn’t necessarily read by everyone. “You can say how many are printed and how many are sent,” said Chase, who said she also the felt the tone was bullying and that the email from Condos was “very condescending.”

“We’re in these seats to make the best decisions for Chester,” said Chase noting that there are people making accusations about this for “various motives.”

“It was interesting to me that after we made our decision four weeks back, within a day or two we were being threatened by a lawsuit,” said board chair Arne Jonynas. That publication did not attempt to talk with the town, he said, “We weren’t engaged in conversation, we weren’t engaged in constructive dialog. The first thing that came out was ‘class action lawsuit,’ which I thought was an extremely threatening way to deal with a problem.” Town Manager Julie Hance confirmed that Robert Miller of the Vermont Journal had emailed her saying he was trying to organize such a suit.

Pointing to Condos, Pappas, Donoghue and Loomis, Jonynas remarked ironically, “We have a lot of folks very interested in the best interests of Chester from all over the state.”

Jonynas said he thought they might go with a combination of a printed paper and internet newspaper to cover themselves legally, but he continued to contend that the statute was a gray area.

“We’re in these seats to make the best decisions for Chester,” said Board member Heather Chase noting that there are ‘various motives’ by those making accusations

“The government in Vermont does not want to address this issue even though it’s come before them before,” said Jonynas. “I’m not sure what the reasoning is behind that. They claim that it’s not to protect media revenue, but I think that’s exactly what it is. I don’t think any of these entities would be concerned if it wasn’t for that reason.”

“It’s brought up that it’s money was why we made the decision while I think it’s just the opposite, I think we’re being fought because of money and the revenue stream that goes with it,” Jonynas continued, adding that he did not think those entities have the best interests of the people of Chester at heart.

Gustafson suggested that the board err on the side of caution and post legal notices in another newspaper – The Commons – as well as The Telegraph.

Jonynas said he wanted to take the high road and use the Journal because of its circulation as much as he disliked the prospect.

Gustafson moved that the town appoint The Commons in addition to The Telegraph as paper of record.

VPA Executive Director apologized to anyone who felt bullied by representatives of his organization and said he would not condone threatening lawsuits

Pointing to papers of record like the Burlington Free Press that are available only with a paid subscription or by purchase at stores, Chase said that under the statute then, it is not the town’s responsibility to guarantee that everyone get a notice, but that the opportunities to get them are “ample.” Chase also said she had called Condos and had not yet been called back.

Donoghue attended the meeting by Zoom and asked to speak. Jonynas said no, but Donoghue offered an apology to any board member who felt bullied and said he can’t endorse threatening a lawsuit.

The motion passed with Jonynas voting no.

The continuing speed limit discussion

Telegraph file photo

The board continued its look at areas like Route 10 and the Andover Road, where residents have complained about speeders and asked for limits to be reduced.

“We are working on this,” said Jonynas, “not always as quickly as we would like.” He noted that the Mount Ascutney Regional Commission would be providing speed recording cables. Hance said she hoped it would be in the next week and expected that data collection would take place for two to three weeks. The cables can be damaged by freezing, however, so the weather has to warm up.

Jonynas noted that this is an issue that should be handled by enforcement rather than by the Select Board.

Hance told the board that regional commission staffers Jason Rasmussen and Otis Munroe said that before looking at changing speed limits they should consider what the road was designed for. In the case of Andover Road, Hance said, it was not designed for pedestrians.

Andover Road resident Ginger Roper said that although the road was not designed for pedestrian traffic, there are a lot of walkers on that road every day. “All of my neighbors walk up and down that road,” Roper said, adding that 50 mph is fast to go by a walker.

Succession planning for town department heads

Town Manager Julie Hance explains the long lead time in certifying a water and wastewater plant operator

Town manager Julie Hance told the board that the town has a number of employees with 30 years or more in service – including department heads – and needs to prepare to continue after those people retire.

Hance pointed to Jeff Holden who runs the Water and Sewer departments, explaining that his replacement will need to be trained and certified in operating the plant as well as having supervisory experience. To do this, she proposed that the town look for candidates to be hired as a fourth department member.

In answer to Chase’s question about being able to pay for a fourth person, Hance said that the Water and Sewer Department are separate from the general fund budget and healthy enterprise funds that can sustain a fourth person.

According to Holden and Hance, a state audit of the department about a decade ago said the departments should have “four and a half” staff members rather than the current three.

The board gave Hance the go ahead to begin advertising for the position.

Executive sessions: Appealing Act 250 permit; pass on old Jiffy Mart, Hance gets 3-year contract

The board held three executive sessions but took action on just two.

In order to change some of the conditions put on it by the state, the board decided to appeal its successful Act 250 permit for extracting gravel off Rt. 103 south. The town would like to raise the number of years it is allowed to extract gravel to 40, from 20, and be allowed to crush stone even if the school grounds “are in use” instead of just “in session.” Attorney Jim Goss estimated that the appeal would cost $5,000 if it did not go to trial and would not prevent the town from doing work on roads and clearing during the appeal.

The second session was to discuss an offer by Champlain Oil to sell the town the former Jiffy Mart building at Main and Depot Streets. The board exited the session without taking any action.

The final session was the culmination of the board’s performance review of Hance which resulted in offering her a contract for three years.

Other business

Hance told the board that the the first coat of primer is being applied to the Public Safety Building and curbing and entrances are beginning to give the place a finished look. She noted that siding would be added to the building in early May.

She noted that materials are exceeding their budget lines but believes that there is Covid-19 funding that will bring back the full contingency of $100,000, which could be rolled into the work on the town garage project.

An ash tree inventory is being pulled together as the town begins to address the oncoming emerald ash borer beetle problem. Hance said the town is asking for volunteers to help. There will be training in early May. Call the town office for more information at 875-2173.

The board appointed Scott MacDonald to a position on the Development Board of Review.

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  1. Dave Ross says:

    Jim Condos is usually a reasonable person. Interesting that his reply was sent electronically.

  2. Robert Nied says:

    Excellent decision by the Select Board to go with a combination of our local digital media and a print newspaper, while at the same time rejecting the obnoxiously aggressive and uncalled for threats by the VT Journal and the VPA.

  3. Linda Diak says:

    Congratulations, Julie! Congratulations, Cynthia and Shawn!

  4. Ken Slater says:

    Congratulations to town manager Julie Hance on her new 3-year contract. I, for one, appreciate her competence, hard work, and dedication to making Chester a great place to live.

    In other news in this story, I am just shaking my head in disbelief – how can you think that threatening to sue your customers for more business is a winning business strategy? The select board certainly did an excellent job in letting them know this is a very bad approach.