BY MAT CLOUSER
BRANDON — Questions, confusion, and allegations have been swirling in Brandon following the recent resignation of selectboardsman Mike Markowski and the process to find his replacement among three qualified applicants—much of which may come from a fundamental misunderstanding of Open Meeting Laws and selectboard procedure.
The board called for letters of interest during their meeting on August 8 while also noting that the deadline for the letters would be at the following meeting on August 22. Shortly before that meeting, the board announced that it would also hold an executive session where they would vote on the candidates—a standard board practice, in keeping with Vermont Open Meeting Law.
Among the exceptions listed for public bodies to hold an executive session under 1 VSA § 313 is section 3, which states:
“The appointment or employment or evaluation of a public officer or employee, provided that the public body shall make a final decision to hire or appoint a public officer or employee in an open meeting and shall explain the reasons for its final decision during the open meeting.”
Of his own volition, Selectboard Chair Seth Hopkins contacted The Reporter via email following the executive session. At that time, he wrote that the board had been divided on their vote 2-2 and that they would be seeking guidance from the Secretary of State’s office, given that the board must have a minimum of three votes to make a choice.
Following The Reporter’s story covering the August 10 selectboard meeting, there has been some unrest in the community, particularly surrounding several Front Porch Forum (FPF) posts, which included questioning the board’s perceived lack of transparency, the posting of the letters of interest from two of the three candidates, and a rebuttal from Mr. Hopkins as to some of the accusations.
In a post on FPF from August 26, Brandon resident Mei Mei Brown wrote, “I was disappointed, while reading the Reporter today, that the conversation was all handled in Executive Session. The citizens of Brandon deserve to know who has applied. The board’s choice to discuss the applicants was appropriate in executive session—the failure to disclose the names was not. What do they not want us to know?”
In response to that post, Mr. Hopkins wrote, “There is no nefarious “what do they not want us to know.” There is only a genuine desire to be human beings to one another and to treat with grace and respect the three people who are offering to step up, two of whom cannot be chosen. In business, education, and democracy, it is not unusual—while a selection process is underway—that information be treated with special care.”
In a follow-up email inquiry by The Reporter, seeking to gain access to the letters as well as an update on the conferral with the Secretary of State’s office, Mr. Hopkins, shared the identity of the three selectboard candidates—also carrying forth their blessing at being identified and having their letters published (see below for the letters in full)—mentioned that the board had not yet received feedback from the Secretary of State’s office, and noted that a citizen of Brandon had also requested the letters.
Speaking about the voting process, Hopkins wrote the following, “We were not ready to vote Monday night. It was apparent to us as we deliberated… that none of the candidates had sufficient support on the board at that time to result in a majority vote in any direction (three of the four members).”
“All three candidates are people of goodwill who would make their own valuable contributions to the selectboard,” he continued. “The individual board members are weighing which contributions and which person would best serve the community. We take the responsibility seriously and respect that rushing to a choice for the sake of an immediate appointment was not in the board’s or the Town’s interest.”
That citizen mentioned by Hopkins, Claire Astone, subsequently contacted The Reporter to say that she had requested the letters via the Freedom of Information act and to outline some of her concerns. “I have great concerns about a lack of transparency,” she wrote, “and what I would deem as an attempt, though a poor one, by Seth Hopkins to excuse their lack of process, which he posted recently on Front Porch Forum while blaming others.”
“I’m more than annoyed that there was no transparency on top of no interviewing process. There was no rush needed. The board had adequate notice from Mike Markowski to be grownups and professionals. Why rush this?” she continued. “I don’t think I have known anyone in my lifetime to use a letter of interest as the sole basis for hiring or filling a vacancy. Ever. So why?… Is having a woman on the board just something that will not be allowed to happen, especially if they have the power to not select one?”
All three select board candidates, Marielle Blais, Ralph Ethier, and Cecil Reniche-Smith, independently noted that there had been no interviews conducted between the submission of their letters and the board’s vote. However, Mr. Ethier did confirm that all three had been offered interviews sometime before the next vote, which will occur at the September 15 board meeting.
All three candidates also weighed in on the process. Ms. Blais by email on August 29, Mr. Ethier by phone on August 30, and Ms. Reniche-Smith by phone on August 29, with each candidate expressing some degree of surprise at how the process had played out.
“What did greatly surprise and disappoint me was, first, that the SB had intended to fill the vacancy without the public even knowing who the three applicants are, and, second, that the SB did not seem to have a procedure in place for breaking a tie. The SB did attempt to address the first of these shortcomings after the fact,” wrote Blais.
“The SB has not violated public meeting law,” she continued, “but they have not been transparent. How democratic is it for four SB members to try to fill a vacancy on a town board without even letting voters know who the applicants are? Brandon deserves better.”
Mr. Ethier said he was also slightly surprised by the candidate’s names not being released publicly. “I think the process has gone a little different than I thought it would,” he said. “But [I think we] should be patient and work through it.”
For her part, Reniche-Smith remained optimistic. “I’m hopeful that the ongoing process will be a little more transparent,” she said.
The board will reconvene on September 12 to make their vote. As always, members of the public are free to make public comment in person or via zoom (a link can be found online at https://www.townofbrandon.com/town-committees/select-board/)
The complete letters of interest are printed below, in full, with the approval of the Brandon Selectboard and each of the candidates:
Marielle Blais Letter
Please accept my letter of application to fill the current vacancy on the Brandon Selectboard.
As you know, when I ran for selectboard on Town Meeting 2022, I ran a close competitive race and lost by only 70 votes, 396 to 466. These results demonstrate that I already have significant support within the community.
My considerable professional and volunteer experience will facilitate my ability to work cooperatively with the selectboard members and residents.
Two years after I bought a home in Forest Dale in 2006, I began teaching in the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, first at Lothrop Elementary School and later at Otter Valley Union Scholl, from which I retired in 2020.
In my work as a speech-language pathologist, I met many local students and their families. I volunteered in numerous capacities, including grant writing which allowed Lothrop to install a school garden, put up a greenhouse, and build a composting system large enough to handle cafeteria food scraps.
I was also, and continue to be, a union activist who held various offices and participated in contract negotiations and grievance hearings.
As a retiree, I volunteer with BRAVO, the Rutland County Humane Society, Compass Treasure Chest, Four Winds Nature Institute, and the Vermont Speech, Language, and Hearing Association.
From numerous conversations, I know women are eager to feel more directly represented on the selectboard. If appointed, I will work hard and participate actively, both during and outside of meetings.
Thank you for considering my application.
Forest Dale resident and taxpayer
I would like to be considered for the open selectboard position.As a longtime resident of Brandon, this is where I have grown up and raised my family. I am also a property owner and business owner in Brandon.Some of the experiences I have gained over the years running my own business, as well as other employment, are in purchasing, managing employees, processing payroll, and AP/AR. I feel I would be an asset on the selectboard.
56 Pearl Street
I am writing to express my interest in an appointment to the newly opened seat on the Brandon Select Board. Since Brandon became my new hometown in 2019, I have enjoyed becoming a part of the thriving town community and would be honored to offer my services to the town as a Board member.
Although I am new to Brandon, my Vermont roots run deep. I graduated from Vermont Law School in 1996, and my mother was a long-time resident of Bethel. Indeed, my mother’s years of service to the Town of Bethel in a volunteer capacity have inspired me to emulate her wherever I have found myself through the years.
I came to Brandon from Oregon, where I practiced law for many years (all the time trying to figure out how to get back to Vermont!). I visited many towns while I decided where I wanted to put down roots. I was drawn to Brandon in part by my observations of the changes the town has gone through in the last few years and the efforts the community put into those changes, all of which demonstrated to me the deep love the people of Brandon have for this town; a love that I quickly developed myself. I currently work part-time at The Bookstore, where I enjoy getting to meet both town residents and visitors. I also have a small (very small) pet care business; you may have seen me out running or walking with my four-legged clients.
From a practical viewpoint, I believe my past work and volunteer experience would be of value to the town. From 2007 through 2019, I served as a Sr. Assistant Attorney General in the Appellate Division of the Oregon Department of Justice, where I represented the state in complex civil and administrative cases, among other matters.
Prior to that, I was in private practice as an insurance defense attorney. My firm held the contract for the Oregon City/County Insurance Services, and I became well acquainted with the concerns of municipal governments. Although I no longer practice law, I believe that as a Board member, my experience in those areas would be of great benefit to the town.
I am a firm believer in volunteerism, and the benefits volunteers bring to the community. My own volunteer experience has ranged from organizing book drives to stock the libraries of the Oregon correctional system to leading a Technical Animal Rescue Team for the Oregon Humane Society.
Here in Brandon, I have helped with the physical aspects of setting up the town dog park and participated in clean-up days; I recently adopted a town garden plot and am looking forward to adding my touch to the town’s beauty. Brandon has a strong volunteer tradition, and I would value the opportunity through Board membership to nourish and grow that tradition so that Brandon remains a wonderful place to live and visit.