Committee’s actions raise transparency concerns
April 28 informational meeting to address cost increases, elections set for May
DOVER- North Branch Fire District #1 has warned an informational meeting for Wednesday, April 28, from 7 to 9 pm, to discuss sewer department issues before the district’s annual meeting on Monday, May 3, and elections on Tuesday, May 4.
The board announced the meeting immediately following an executive session presentation by Rich Werner at the board’s April 8 meeting. Although the minutes indicate there was no discussion during what was, according to prudential committee chair Tom Ferrazza, a 25-minute presentation, the board hasn’t provided any explanation for holding the presentation in executive session.
In an email to The Deerfield Valley News, Ferrazza says Werner wanted the presentation to be in open session, but agreed to continue in executive session when Ferrazza agreed to place a letter delivered by Werner “into the open record in its entirety.” At the time of the executive session presentation, several members of the public were on hold in the board’s virtual meeting. The letter has been posted, along with the minutes of the meeting, and a link to the April 28 meeting, at northbranchfiredistrict.com.
During the session Werner presented a four-page letter listing numerous concerns he says have been expressed by those living in the district, including customers of his W&B Property Management company. The concerns listed in the letter include a doubling of the treatment cost per gallon over the last six years, an increase in the cost of hooking up to the system that has gone from $7 to $40 per gallon and its impact on development, guidelines for counting sleeping spaces and their impact on real estate sales, the waiver of fees for town buildings, and the appointment of current board members to longer terms.
The appointments Werner referred to occurred at the board’s February 19 meeting, following an executive session “to discuss legal and personnel.” According to the minutes, the board appointed Ferrazza to a term vacated by former chair Cynthia Frere ending in 2022, and Ferrazza relinquished his previously elected term ending in 2021. In a similar motion, the board appointed vice chair Dan Facilla to a position vacated by Eddie Barber.
According to meeting minutes, the actions at the February 19 meeting were “ratifications” of earlier actions. No mention of the original appointments appears in any meeting minutes prior to February 19, however, and, so far, North Branch officials have declined to reveal when the original appointments were made. The minutes indicate that the appointments were made on the basis of advice from the North Branch attorney and the state of Vermont, and ratifications were made based on the advice of the North Branch attorney “for full transparency and continuity of the committee.”
North Branch has refused to release their attorney’s opinion, however, and has failed to respond in a timely manner to a public records request by The Deerfield Valley News for any documents pertaining to the appointment of board members.
In his letter, Werner suggests a “better explanation” of the appointments, and also requests the release of a letter from NBFD’s attorney discussed at their March 11 meeting. “There is a lot of confusion, and some people feel that prudential committee members resigning and being appointed is confusing, and hard to determine what happened and who is serving for what terms.”
According to meeting minutes and a recording of the March 11 meeting, the letter from attorney Paul Giuliani was acknowledged along with other correspondence and discussed in open session. Although the audio of the meeting is garbled at times, Ferrazza acknowledges that “This is Paul’s (Giuliani) letter back to us stating about the elections and the fact that we lost a year.”
“So yes, we’re not all up for election,” replied Facilla.
In his letter, Werner says communication and transparency seem to be at the root of the concerns that have been expressed. “I do not believe that any action that the prudential committee has done is illegal, immoral or with intent to harm anyone.”
Facilla’s statement and the minutes of the meetings appear to hint at an explanation for the appointments. There was no annual meeting in 2020 due to the pandemic, and the elected terms of Ferrazza and Facilla were set to expire in 2021, along with the remaining positions on the board. Had the board not appointed someone to the two seats expiring in 2022, the entire board would be up for election May 4, creating the possibility that five new, inexperienced board members could be elected. Municipal board and committee terms are generally staggered to prevent such an occurrence, prevent the loss of “institutional memory,” and provide a level of continuity from board to board.
The minutes of the March 11 meeting describe Giuliani’s letter as saying, “Due to the election disruptions caused by the state of emergency, what should have occurred in 2020 didn’t. The result is that the prudential committee member terms have been extended by one year.”
The meeting minutes of February 19 also appear to refer to the concern that the board could lose experienced members. “Because of COVID-19, it literally takes the entire committee at one time and wipes them out. Which is why the state made the decision it did.”
Three prudential committee positions are up for election on the NBFD ballot to be voted on Tuesday, May 4. Jon Prial is running for a one-year term on the prudential committee, Steve Montello is challenging incumbent John Snow for a two-year term, and Bob Stone for a three-year term. According to a letter from Ferrazza, however, Gray Ghost Inn owner Carina Hellström is challenging Stone as a write-in for the three-year term. The annual meeting and floor vote on the other warned articles, including a $1.3 million operations budget and other expenditures will be held at the Dover Town Hall at 10 am on Monday, May 3.