BY MAT CLOUSER
BRANDON — During the Brandon selectboard’s final meeting last month, the board accepted an invitation to join IDEAL Vermont, a state program focused on inclusion, diversity, equality, action, and leadership.
Vermont’s Racial Equity Director Xusana Davis said Brandon was invited to join because “it has demonstrated a willingness to confront and overcome inequity, including racial/ethnic inequity, through actions such as the adoption of the Declaration of Inclusion.”
In the first real test of its willingness to put some of those principles into action, however, the board elected to fill its vacant selectboard seat with more of a demographic it already has in spades. In this case, white men—of which the board was and now continues to be entirely comprised of following the appointment of Ralph Ethier, a long-time Brandon resident who recently served on the Planning Commission and the Development Review Board.
Of the three potential candidates, two were women—Marielle Blais and Cecil Reniche-Smith—both of whom boast an extensive list of qualifications, including extensive legal, educational, restorative justice, and a history of civic involvements, as outlined in their letters of interest, which The Reporter published in full on August 31. Brandon has not had a woman on its selectboard in over a decade.
Following several weeks of controversy and discourse, in which the selectboard was publicly castigated for a perceived lack of transparency, accused of nefarious dealings, and generally derided for failing to go so far as to interview the three candidates before the board’s initial vote (on August 10) in executive session. That vote was a self-reported tie, of which Board Chair Seth Hopkins said, “We were not ready to vote [that night].”
Although it took nearly a month, all three candidates were eventually interviewed by the selectboard—for roughly fifteen minutes each— again in an executive session (in keeping with Vermont Open Meeting Law 1 VSA § 313) held prior to the board’s recent meeting on Monday, Sept. 12.
Several members of the public were on hand to voice their displeasure with the board during the public comment period of the subsequent selectboard meeting—which occurred before the board’s eventual public vote to appoint Mr. Ethier.
Many of those who spoke became emotional, echoing many of the previous accusations of transparency.
Ms. Blais spoke first. “My concern was that when the applications were requested… the selectboard was going to make a decision without even letting the public know who the applicants were,” she said. “I know it wasn’t a violation of public meeting law… but I don’t think it’s good practice. I think people do want to know who the applicants are.”
“There’s been a lot of talk since Brandon adopted a statement of inclusivity,” Blais continued. “I would urge the board to think about what representation means… It is important for people to see people who resemble them in public arenas—please keep that in mind.”
Claire Astone spoke next, taking a decidedly less diplomatic approach. “I’m not going to be so nice,” she said, “because this process has been not a process at all—I don’t know who you’re trying to serve… I know you [interviewed] people tonight, but you voted before you ever interviewed people—that is beyond my comprehension. I expect more from you than that… you have let this community down.”
Mr. Hopkins was quick to reiterate that the board’s actions were well within its legal capabilities, and he attempted to read from the board’s policy before Blais interrupted, saying, “Nobody is saying you broke the rules. What you broke was a connection and communication with this town.”
“To keep it quiet and behind closed doors when you serve this town is ridiculous,” she said. “It was a flat-out betrayal of a process and democracy—and shame on all of you for doing it this way when you didn’t have to.”
Town Manager Dave Atherton stepped in to assuage some of the tension in the room. “I think the board did follow the process that’s set forth, but I also realize… that there’s this new level of transparency that’s not really written in a book [yet] that we need to start following,” he said, offering to research what other organizations might be doing along similar lines given the state of national and global turmoil in recent years, particularly as equity is concerned. “I think that’s what the public is expecting.”
“I will say that I consider nothing that we’ve done to be un-transparent. This is one of the roles of the board,” said selectboardsman Tim Guiles. “It’s not a public referendum. I don’t think we kept anybody from knowing anything. We’re going through our process in an honest way… I have no regret for the way we’ve handled this policy.”
Mr. Hopkins acknowledged his past interest in creating a form for potential candidates for public office that would establish basic information such as their residence in Brandon and their willingness to disclose their interests in holding office publicly. However, he said the idea had not received much “purchase.”
“I think at this point, that would head off a potential re-run of a situation where people felt left out,” he said, offering the solution again and stating that he would take it upon himself to start work on a draft.
Tree Warden Neil Silins then made a brief comment reiterating his disappointment at a perceived lack of transparency following his learning of how the letters of interest were disclosed. “If this keeps up, we won’t even have to have an election,” he said.
“We have direct democracy at points in the year,” responded Mr. Hopkins, “where absolutely everybody has the opportunity to weigh in. We then have representative democracy the rest of the year—that’s what the town asks the selectboard to do for them.”
Hopkins continued by expressing his admiration for the citizens of Brandon who are able to attend board meetings and other civic activities but acknowledged that not everyone can do so. “The 4,000 people in Brandon, through their votes, entrust the selectboard to act on their behalf and in their interests,” he said.
“It’s a legitimate form of democracy,” he continued, “that we all take very seriously. I’m happy to stand for election every year as part of that open and direct democracy.”
Eventually, the board did come to a vote on the matter, with Mr. Guiles making a motion to appoint Ms. Reniche-Smith to the vacant seat. However, the vote again fell 2-to-2, with selectmen Coolidge and Wyman casting votes against Reniche-Smith.
Immediately following that vote, Mr. Wyman motioned to appoint Mr. Ethier to the seat, saying, “I’ve talked to a number of my constituents… female and male… and there’s been a lot of support for Ralph.”
As part of the continuing discussion, Mr. Guiles said, “I think it’s important to point out that this is a temporary position. The voters will speak in March.”
There was no further public comment following Mr. Guiles’ statement, and Mr. Ethier was successfully appointed to the select board by a vote of 3-to-1, with Mr. Hopkins casting the lone dissenting vote.
Ms. Blais expressed her disappointment following the vote, saying, “I am disappointed that the selectboard had a chance to make the board a little more diverse and couldn’t see clear their way to do it… it speaks volumes about the town and not in a good way.”
Selectman Coolidge responded to Blais, saying, “Actually, the last three elections, there’s been a woman or women on that ballot, and the voters have been the ones that have decided.”
“I think you’re not learning,” said Ms. Astone, “and that’s sad. I do hope the voters remember this well because change is coming—it can’t be the straight-white-boy-club forever.”
In other business, the board:
- Appointed Town Manager Dave Atherton as its Town Fair voting delegate;
- Appointed Doug Bailey as the new alternate to the town’s Otter Creek Watershed Insect Control Board seat.
- Announced the vacancy of the Town Constable position;
- Moved into the finalization phase of the town’s new hazard mitigation plan;
- Heard a brief presentation from Selectboardman Guiles on this year’s “Green Fleet Policy” showing the town’s overall carbon footprint. The report showed that the town’s 337.2 metric tons of CO2 emissions are back up to pre-COVID pandemic levels, and identified a number of areas where it can strive to improve and meet the state’s mandate of net-zero emissions by 2050. “We’re ready to make these changes,” said Guiles;
- Heard from Rep. Stephanie Jerome about the upcoming legislative agenda, including a brief note about the possibility of a Vermont Film Council and its ties to the potential for rural economic development;
- Heard the Town Manager’s report which mentioned demolition process had begun on the Arnold District Culver project, which is anticipated to continue through mid-October; the Town Farm Road construction as being so far successful and under budget, and exploratory work with Watershed Consulting discussing the next steps on the stormwater mitigation project at N.E. Woodcraft;
- Heard from Rec. Department updates including the starting of a new disc golf program for youth ages 6-12 on Thursdays at the Neshobe School during October and the beginning of the first Lego Robotics club which starts Sept. 14th thanks to the help of two new instructors, Jonathan Fries and Kevin Booth, who will be working with “fearless Robotics commissioner and Otter Valley Tech Ed mastermind” Devin Karpak. Registration for kids in grades six through nine remains open through the end of the month.