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Williamstown Select Board
Williamstown board rescinds planned termination of town manager

WILLIAMSTOWN — Town Manager Jackie Higgins won’t be terminated, the Select Board is suddenly short-handed, a controversial ATV ordinance cleared a key hurdle and municipal budgets voters will be asked to approve on Town Meeting Day are now set.

Monday was a busy night in Williamstown where a standing room only crowd packed the high school library and watched the board rescind last week’s, 3-2, vote in favor of taking steps to terminate Higgins.

Monday night’s vote came moments after one board member — Chris Wade — resigned “effective immediately” and another — Jessica Worn — fought back tears while acknowledging she had seriously considered doing the same amid hostile blowback over last Wednesday’s split decision.

The latter decision didn’t last long, but it wasn’t curiosity over Higgins’ job security that attracted more than 100 people to a public meeting that was sandwiched between executive sessions.

The draw Monday night was the ATV ordinance, though those for and against that proposal had to wait until after latest local government drama played itself out.

Wade didn’t.

The first-year selectman made a very early exit after reading a prepared statement announcing his abrupt resignation with more than a year left in his two-year term.

Wade lamented his failure to bring “positive change” to a community he argued has long been plagued with systemic problems and bemoaned the toxic nature of social media. That, he said, includes a local Facebook page that morphed into a forum for “… rumors, lies and misinformation” in the wake of last week’s vote to find cause for Higgins termination.

“I have learned just how hateful the community of Williamstown has become,” said Wade, who initially supported the motion that was rescinded Monday.

So did Worn, who tried to contain her emotions while complaining she was the target of “adult bullying” that prompted her to consider stepping down.

Worn didn’t and joined Chairman Matthew Rouleau and others in urging Wade to reconsider his decision to resign.

Wade politely refused, suggesting he wasn’t willing to subject his family to petty small-town politics.

“I knew this was a thankless job when I ran for it, but never in my wildest dreams … did I think we would get to the point that we have,” he said before leaving the meeting library.

Board members accepted Wade’s resignation, which means three of the board’s five seats will be filled by voters in March.

Wade’s departure came after Rouleau said he’d reconsidered last week’s decision to move to terminate Higgins, who isn’t going any where.

Acting on the advice of their lawyer, the remaining board members unanimously voted to rescind last week’s finding there was “just cause” to terminate the veteran town manager for “… creating a hostile work environment (and) violating the town’s harassment policy.”

Following a brief, meeting-ending executives session — the second of the evening on the subject — the board unanimously voted to direct Higgins to seek human resources training and training in personal relations. Included in that motion was the suggestion all town employees do the same.

That’s how the meeting ended.

It began with Wade’s resignation, followed by the board’s reversal with respect to Higgins’ termination, as well as a harsh critique from local lawmaker Rodney Graham.

Graham, a former selectman, blamed the board’s “veteran” members — Rouleau and Francis Covey — for botching the handling of Higgins’ hearing last week.

“Maybe if you were better prepared and knew what the policies and the laws were so that you could … explain to the new members how things work this may have never escalated to what it did,” Graham said.

“When you can’t follow policies, this is what happens,” he added.

Rouleau and Covey, who were both on the short end of last week’s, 3-2, vote, accepted the criticism and moved on.

What the board planned to do about Higgins, who is still in the first year of a three-year contract that runs expires in 2022 wasn’t the main attraction Monday night. Whether the board was willing to adopt an ordinance that could open up 18 miles of town roads to ATVs was.

Though the controversial question filled the room and both sides were well represented the discussion was both brief and surprisingly tame.

It’s also probably not over, according Rama Schneider, who served as the non-voting chairman of a board-appointed committee that spent the last several months working on the issue.

“I personally do not believe this is a settled question,” Schneider told board members when delivering the committee’s promised report.

Schneider said the panel stopped short of recommending the board adopt an ordinance, but agreed that if one is approved it should mirror language contained in its report.

Schneider told the board adopting the ordinance and providing opponents with the opportunity to petition for its reveal might be “the most democratic path forward.” It is one he said that opened the door to ATVs legally using designated town roads while giving those who object to the idea the opportunity to close it during a special election.

The board went with that logic and passed an ordinance Rouleau predicted would be tested at a yet-to-be-petitioned for town vote.

Opponents of the ordinance provided the board with 125 signatures from residents who object to the ordinance and if they are able to circulate a petition signed by 115 town voters in the next 44 days a special election will be scheduled.

Rouleau said that was likely and would be the best barometer of how much support the idea enjoys in the community.

Due to warning requirements Higgins said the issue couldn’t be scheduled for a Town Meeting Day vote in March and the scheduling of a vote would be dictated on whether and when a valid petition is presented to the town.

If no petition is filed the ordinance will go into effect in 60 days and would be annually reviewed by the board.

Opponents of the ordinance started collecting signatures moments after leaving the meeting where they appeared to be outnumbered by those who support the change.

Meanwhile, the board took care of an important piece of business approving general and highway fund budgets and a draft warning for Town Meeting Day.

The board is proposing a $1.5 million general fund budget to pay for the day to day operations of the town. That budget reflects a spending increase of roughly $115,000, or 8 percent. Nearly half of the proposed increase is tied to computer related upgrades.

The $1.2 million highway fund budget is up roughly $167,500 over the current year, an increase of about 16 percent. The cost of a part-time summer position, $60,000 in additional funding for the road rehabilitation reserve, and increases for winter salt and crushed ledge are largely responsible.

If both voters approve both budgets in March, Higgins estimated it would add roughly 8 cents to the local tax rate. That would add about $160 to the tax bill for a home assessed at $200,000, or $8 for every $100,000 of assessed value.

david.delcore @timesargus.com

‘Conspiracy of goodwill’: Community celebrates tiny house project

BARRE — A prototype of a tiny house as one solution for tackling homelessness and mental illness was hailed on Tuesday at a celebration of the project.

Designed and built by Norwich University students, the LIFT house is a 360-square-foot, energy-efficient home for a homeless person with mental health issues who would not fit in well in an apartment complex or shared-living housing situation. The students named the project the LIFT house with the idea that the concept and structure itself could help lift someone out of a difficult situation.

The front of the house features a broader opening, with a kitchen and room for a sofa and table. The roof slopes down toward the back of the house, which includes a bathroom with a washer and dryer and a walk-in shower, and a bedroom with room for a queen-sized bed and full closet.

Energy efficiency is a key part of the project, with a tight building envelope, cellulose-insulated walls, triple-glaze windows and a high-efficiency heat pump and ventilation system. The installation of solar panels would make the building net-zero in terms of energy efficiency. It is estimated it cost about $75,000 to build the house but it is expected costs could be reduced for future buildings.

The tiny house is situated on Brook Street in Barre City donated by former Barre mayor Thomas Lauzon, where a second, similar house will be sited after its completion by Norwich University students at the end of summer.

Last April, when the house was still under construction, Lauzon floated the idea of mass-producing the houses. On Tuesday, reaffirmed his offer, saying he had factory space in downtown Barre ready to expand the project. Other project partners said they would first need to assess the success of the prototype and its partner before “scaling up” the project.

The project is a collaboration between Norwich University students, who designed and built the house; the Department of Mental Health, which will a provide housing vouchers for the occupant; Washington County Mental Health Services, which will provide tenant support; Downstreet Housing and Development, which creates affordable housing projects; and Lauzon.

Additional support came from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and TD Bank, which gave Norwich University $200,000 for its architectural affordable-home building program.

On Tuesday, TD Bank announced an additional award of $20,000 toward the cost of completing the second tiny house to be completed this year.

The celebration of the first tiny house was held at Downstreet Housing and Community Development in Barre.

Outgoing Norwich President Rich Schneider welcomed project partners.

“Today’s celebration of the LIFT house, which is the latest affordable housing project completed by the Norwich University Design and Build Collaborative ... is a great melding of community power,” Schneider said.

Schneider noted that the “vision” for the project would not have happened without the resources provided, and credited TD Bank with funding.

“That gift allowed us to put all of this together,” Schneider said.

Schneider also credited the work of NU’s Design and Build Collaborative that brought different disciplines together for the project, including architecture, engineering, business, nursing and cyber-security information systems.

“When you think about creating something like this, it takes all those different talents to make the project a success,” Schneider said. “The power and the importance of the collaborative cannot be overstated, unifying our students, unifying our faculty and unifying our community partners.”

Phil Daniels, market president of TD Bank, also credited the “mosaic” of community partners on the project “to benefit those in our community who are in need.”

Aron Temkin, dean of the College of Professional Schools at Norwich, echoed gratitude for TD Bank’s investment in the project that also supported the university’s Design and Build Collaborative program. Temkin noted that the tiny house was the seventh housing project by the collaborative to support communities in Vermont, ranging in size from 200 to 1,000 square feet, as a response to the flood damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

“They’re not only affordable, but they’re thoughtful, they’re efficient, they’re resilient,” Temkin said.

Eileen Peltier, executive director of Downstreet Housing and Community Development, said the two tiny houses and two apartments in a nearby former single-family home on Brook Street were reason for celebration.

“The apartments will provide homes for previously homeless individuals with mental illness and each home comes with a rental voucher,” Peltier said. “The Brook Street project exemplifies three important values for Downstreet House and Community Development and the people we serve here in central Vermont.”

Peltier also credited partners in the project, adding: “Today, we can be proud to say we have created four new homes for out most vulnerable neighbors.”

Mary Moulton, executive director of Washington County Mental Health Services, noted support for the project that included housing vouchers to help support homeless people with mental health issues.

Moulton added that it was hoped that people served by the project would go on to be part of a peer program “to give back” by working with others in a similar situation.

“We really believe in the peer model, the model of people who have walked the walk, people who understand the experience of homelessness and of receiving services for their mental health needs, to support those who will live in the tiny houses,” Moulton said. “We will be watching that progress and process to see how successful it is.”

Gus Seelig, executive director of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, noted earlier collaborative efforts by Capstone Community Action, Lauzon and Downstreet Housing and Community Development that were supported by Gov. Phil Scott’s housing revenue bond for affordable housing projects, including the LIFT house, which met a criterium to be innovative.

This is a substantial home ... it’s built to be energy-efficient and to be durable, and I think that’s really important,” Seelig said, declaring it “a conspiracy of goodwill.”

Project architect Tolya Stonorov, an assistant professor of architecture at Norwich — who also designed the NEST play space recently installed at Union Elementary School in Montpelier — said the design team was inspired by the idea “of lifting people out of a challenging situation.”

The LIFT house was built by 16 NU architecture students, including Richard Pearce, 22, of Easton, Massachusetts, who graduated last year and is now studying for his master’s in architecture.

“We designed it so that it would go anywhere and be on any site,” Pearce said.

stephen.mills @timesargus.com

Warren: Sanders didn't think a woman could win White House

WASHINGTON — Elizabeth Warren says fellow Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders told her when they met privately in 2018 that he didn’t think a woman could win the White House.

Sanders has denied that. But the Massachusetts senator said in a statement Monday that during their two-hour meeting two years ago to discuss the 2020 election, “among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.”

The dispute marked an extraordinary turning point in a Democratic primary that, with few exceptions, has been characterized by genial differences over domestic issues such as health care. The feud brewing between Warren and Sanders will likely change the tone of the campaign going into Tuesday’s debate and comes less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses launch the Democratic contest. It also marks a jarring split between the two longtime progressive allies, potentially giving an opening for a more moderate rivals such as former Vice President Joe Biden to attempt unifying the party.

In her statement, Warren said she and Sanders “have far more in common than our differences on punditry.”

“I’m in this race to talk about what’s broken in this country and how to fix it — and that’s what I’m going to continue to do,” she said. “I know Bernie is in the race for the same reason. We have been friends and allies in this fight for a long time, and I have no doubt we will continue to work together to defeat Donald Trump and put our government on the side of the people.”

CNN first reported Sanders’ comment earlier Monday, based on the accounts of anonymous people with knowledge of the meeting. That drew a swift and strong denial from Sanders, a Vermont senator, who said, “It is ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn’t win.”

Sanders aides then accused Warren’s campaign of leaking what they said was an inaccurate description of what was said during the meeting.

That helped prompt Warren’s statement hours later. Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to Sanders, then seemed to try and defuse the situation, refusing to refute Warren’s version and instead saying only on CNN on Monday night that “those conversations can sometimes get misconstrued.”

Still, the controversy is likely to revive anxiety among Democrats about whether — nearly four years after Hillary Clinton lost her White House bid — voters are willing to support another woman running for president. Such questions have dogged Warren and other female candidates throughout the 2020 campaign.

The clash between Sanders and Warren comes on the eve of a Democratic presidential debate in Iowa, the last before that state kicks off the Democratic primary with its leadoff caucuses on Feb. 3. Warren and Sanders, both of whom support universal health care, tuition-free public college and raising the minimum wage, have for months competed for their party’s most liberal wing while refraining from attacking each other.

But following a Politico story over the weekend that reported the Sanders campaign had instructed some volunteers to characterize Warren as a candidate for wealthy and well-educated voters in conversations with undecided voters, Warren issued a rare critique of her opponent. She said she was “disappointed” Sanders was instructing staffers to “trash” her.

That set the stage for Monday’s hours of additional squabbling — and may well spell a lively debate on Tuesday.

Stephanie Taylor and Adam Green, co-founders of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has at times praised both Warren and Sanders, released its own statement Monday night saying they “believe that a back-and-forth about this private meeting is counter-productive for progressives.”

“In this pivotal moment of the campaign, progressives must work together to defeat Donald Trump,” Taylor and Green said.

Barre Area Development Corp.
BADC executive director to retire

BARRE – The executive director of the Barre Area Development Corp. is retiring, handing over the recent “Rock Solid” branding effort to a successor.

Joel Schwartz was hired as the head of the BADC in 2013. He’s told the organization’s board he’ll stick around until the end of the year to help train and work with his replacement, but if that process happens quickly, he’ll move on sooner.

Schwartz said Tuesday he decided to retire now in part because the organization is in the process of a branding effort called “Rock Solid.” The initiative is aimed at attracting new families, businesses and visitors to the city and town.

Schwartz said he’s more of a project person, where his career has been focused on starting and finishing projects he’s managing, instead of marketing. So he felt the organization would be better served by someone with a stronger focus on and better skills for marketing.

“I just know I’m not the right person for some of the future activities,” he said.

While he is retiring, Schwartz said he plans on continuing to work on projects part time. He said he’s been approached to work on projects, but has turned them down because he’s been working full-time for BADC.

When he started on the job Schwartz said there was plenty of buzz around Barre with the construction of City Place and the makeover of North Main Street. He said that buzz has died down a bit, but hopefully the marketing campaign can reignite it.

While some endeavors didn’t pan out, Schwartz said he was proud of some that did. He pointed to the makeover of Enterprise Alley, bringing electric vehicle charging stations to the city and bringing businesses to the Wilson Industrial Park as some of the highlights during his tenure.

Schwartz said his biggest regrets were not finding someone to fill the empty space next to the old Homer Fitts building, which he called a “festering sore,” and not pushing harder to expand facilities at the Millstone Trails to attract more people there.

Town and city officials have butted heads in the past when it comes to cooperating with each other. But Schwartz said that’s been changing. He doesn’t take credit for it, but he said the two municipalities are better about working with each other. He said his approach has always been there is one Barre, which includes the town and city.

Looking forward, Schwartz said Barre is a working-class area and that’s not going to change. He just hopes more people and businesses can be brought in to the benefit of everyone.

Sarah Field, president of the BADC board, said Schwartz brought with him an institutional knowledge and an understanding of the process for the job.

“And a level of sophistication that we hadn’t had in the past,” Field said.

She said he was instrumental in creating a level of expertise for the organization and he will be sorely missed. She said Schwartz has positioned the organization well so that it can continue to grow.

Field said the BADC has started a search for Schwartz’s replacement and has started collecting resumes. She said interviews should start by the end of the month.

eric.blaisdell @timesargus.com


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