• Defining the roles
    October 24,2013

    Despite being on opposite sides of a hot-button issue, Montpelier Mayor John Hollar and Planning Director Gwendolyn Hallsmith are both correct in their assessment that Vermont’s small size often makes it very difficult to do jobs and have lives without blurring the lines.

    The adage that “Vermont is really a small town” definitely applies to what is happening here.

    Hallsmith, who has been with the city for seven years, recently raised concerns that she was feeling pressure around City Hall to quiet her volunteer effort to aggressively advocate for what she sees as Vermont’s need for a state-run bank. In fact, her position had so tweaked Hollar, a lobbyist representing big banks in Vermont, that he raised his own issue with Hallsmith’s supervisor, City Manager William Fraser, over whether Hallsmith was actually venturing well into the waters of conflict of interest.

    Certainly, the mayor — as protector of the city’s image — was correct to question whether Hallsmith’s push to get public banking onto the spring town meeting ballot was fair.

    “I would like to know ... how this campaign is consistent with the City’s economic development policies and her job description,” he wrote to Fraser after receiving an email from Sarah Carpenter, executive director of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency. In addition to citing several Google search results about Vermonters for a New Economy, Carpenter sent a heads up to Hollar and others that Vermonters for a New Economy (with which Hallsmith is closely allied) was seeking ballot resolutions to ask the Legislature to consolidate VHFA, the Vermont Economic Development Authority, the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. and the Municipal Bond Bank and form a state bank.

    “Why in the world would the city want to take a position in support of consolidating the agencies ... and antagonizing some of the most senior economic development officials in the state?” Hollar wrote to Fraser. “Gwen obviously can pursue interests on her own time, but as the city’s chief economic development officer, her position on these issues can’t be distinguished from her official position with the city.”

    In time, Hollar and Fraser concluded it was not prudent to advise Hallsmith to drop her volunteer work. In fact, Fraser rescinded a sanction he had earlier imposed that instructed his employee to “refrain from involvement in external political issues such as public banking which may impact your effectiveness as a Montpelier City official.”

    The question is: Did Fraser and Hollar go too far?

    While the mayor and the manager could infer that Hallsmith and this newspaper made hay out of a “personnel issue,” Hallsmith was within her rights to bring up the free speech issue, and even be somewhat concerned that her position was at risk. But, as Hollar and Fraser both acknowledged, her involvement with Vermonters for a New Economy does not appear to have affected her job performance.

    So what’s really happening here? Evidently, strong egos and personalities are conflicted in some disagreement over politics. But there’s also an underlying concern as it pertains to what appears — at least from the outside — as strong-arming and arrogance. While formal sanctions were not imposed to control the message out of City Hall, this incident sends a clear message to Montpelier employees and to the public at large: image first.

    Hollar is paid to foist his clients’ opinions on others; Fraser is the traffic cop for a well-run city government. Both of them should know that people’s rights come first, especially in the smallest of states where lines are easily blurred. Encouraging involvement in our democratic process should be the kind of image Montpelier wants to project, regardless of insider politics.

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