Friday March 22, 2013

DUMMERSTON -- Tensions between the Selectboard and Development Review Board continue, with the review board's chairman saying he feels "bullied" and alleging that the Selectboard "called us names and ran away."

DRB Chairman Herb Rest on Wednesday also asked for a thorough, "objective" analysis of all review board decisions to show that there is no evidence of bias.

Selectboard members did not commit to conducting such a review, with some arguing that it would be better to simply move on. But Rest is insisting that the Selectboard clear the air publicly.

"I just don't like to be bullied," he said. "And I feel like that's what's happening."

The dispute stems from a September ruling in which the review board denied variances for a fence, a deck and an aboveground pool requested by John and Lori Thibault of Schoolhouse Road.

The couple appealed to Environmental Court.

But the matter has taken on a life of its own in Dummerston, with some Selectboard members refusing to defend the DRB decision and saying the Thibaults were unfairly denied variances.

The dispute indirectly led to Selectboard member Lewis White briefly resigning from the board after a heated conflict-of-interest debate. He since has returned after being overwhelmingly re-elected at Town Meeting.


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In February -- at the same meeting where White announced he would step down -- Rest read a letter decrying "the Selectboard's impression that the decisions made by the DRB stratify into a bias in favor of certain citizen groupings within the community and against others."

Rest argued that the Selectboard had "handicapped the DRB decision-making ability."

"Until such a time as the Selectboard conducts an open and transparent investigation of the allegations, comes to an evidence-based conclusion and publicly and appropriately responds to those conclusions, every DRB decision becomes suspect," Rest wrote at that time.

On Wednesday, Rest again asked the Selectboard for an investigation and presented a lengthy document defending his record. According to his transcription of a Jan. 23 meeting, White referred to the DRB Thibault decision as a "class thing" -- a point Rest vehemently denies.

"So what class is it that you see me as biased against?" Rest wrote to the Selectboard. "I have worked with and for the wealthy, the powerful, gay and straight, men and women. The only group that I have not identified is religions, and I can assure you there is no bias there."

Lew Sorenson, another member of the review board, said he thought some Selectboard members had made "slanderous" comments.

"This mess has been plagued by misunderstandings and misstatements," Sorenson said. "I think that, as a board, you owe it to us to clear our name."

Also at issue is a letter Lori Thibault wrote to the Selectboard criticizing Rest's handling of the variance denial. Shortly after receiving that letter, the Selectboard elected to enter into mediation with the Thibaults rather than contesting the matter in Environmental Court.

But Selectboard Chairman Zeke Goodband said the board was acting on advice from the Vermont League of Cities & Towns. And he said he had considered Rest's response to the Thibault letter.

"I know there are always two sides to every story," Goodband said.

In response to Rest's account of the Jan. 23 meeting, White said he would not apologize.

"Usually, when I say something, that's how I feel," White said. "I would like to see us just move on."

Selectboard member Bill Holiday noted that the board as a whole never had accused Rest of bias.

"I don't know if I've ever apologized for something somebody else said," Holiday said.

The Selectboard's newest member, Joe Cook, took office this month and has not been involved in the dispute. But Cook said he has read through DRB decisions and was impressed by the board's actions.

"I guess I'm not sure what will be accomplished by an investigation," Cook said. "I'd just like to be able to move on."

Holiday made his feelings about the DRB's work clear.

"I wouldn't feel qualified to do what you folks do," he said. "I put 100 percent confidence in you."

Nonetheless, Rest said he wants a formal "affirmation" of the DRB's track record.

"You have to say, ‘We've reviewed things, and things are as they should be,'" he said.

Selectboard member Steve Glabach said such a review might happen within the context of the board's mediation with the Thibaults.

"You're asking us to look at your decisions, and this case is going to make us look at your decisions," Glabach said. "And that's a good thing."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.