Connecting the dots
The recent events at Montpelier City Hall transcend town boundaries. Issues such as freedom of speech, real or perceived conflict of interests among public officials, ignoring open meeting laws, and disregarding state law and public policy are serious, and reflect on all Vermonters. The City Council’s letter, which was not authorized at a public meeting, claims that the mayor’s and city manager’s ethics are “above reproach,” and that they work to “avoid any hint of influence other than the best interests of the city.”
I have some simple questions for the City Council. Consider this sequence of events:
The mayor is a lobbyist for large private banks. There is a memo from the CEO of VHFA, a quasi-state agency reliant on the good graces of the big banks, to the Mayor and several other people alerting them about the advocacy work of an organization Gwen is part of — as a private citizen — which is calling for town meetings to consider the benefits of a public bank in Vermont.
After receiving the note from the VHFA, the mayor wrote to the city manager, saying that, “this can’t continue,” and telling him that he saw no point in even meeting with Gwen to discuss it. Then the city manager wrote a memo to the city planning director, telling her: “You will refrain from involvement in external political issues such as public banking which may impact your effectiveness as a city official.” That’s a pretty clear directive; she violates it by risking her livelihood through insubordination.
He later changed the directive when Gwen reminded him that the First Amendment protects her activities as a private citizen, and offered to issue clear disclaimers to make it clear she wasn’t speaking on behalf of city government. But his new directive was still beyond the boundaries of what he can ask her to do, saying “you will actively be clear that you are not representing or speaking for the city government or as a city official in any way. In such appearances, you will not engage in discussions about city matters even if asked in order to reduce confusion about your roles.”
Gwen is free to discuss “city matters” (like conflicts of interest in the city leadership, for example, which wouldn’t have come to light without her speaking up) as a private citizen. Was this additional effort by the manager trying to silence her from speaking out on the corruption — there is no better word for it — in city government?
Unfortunately this battle is being waged in the press. This is happening because city council has not given Gwen or the public a chance to discuss the City Council’s official opinions on the subject at an open meeting. (In fact, most public employees are allowed an executive session that would protect their reputation while the facts are aired).
So in addition to condoning the private influence at work with the mayor’s directive — a clear ethical violation — the City Council has also violated the open meeting law in their letter that was sent to news media around the state. This action is clearly designed to destroy the reputation of a hardworking public employee who has upheld the policies of the city even when it has been quite hard to do so in an increasingly corrupt environment.
Where are the watchdogs for this sort of thing? What recourse does she have, when everyone above her seems intent on violating her civil rights and her rights as a public employee? And, please, explain what a hint of corruption would look like.
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