Dummerston Selectboard chairman to resign; cites conflict of interest

Friday February 8, 2013

DUMMERSTON -- The chairman of Dummerston's Selectboard says he will resign following a dispute at a Wednesday meeting over his ties to the town's highway department.

Lewis White, a five-year veteran of the Selectboard, maintained that he never has shown any favoritism to the department, which is led by his cousin, Lee Chamberlin.

Several other town officials agreed, and they urged White to reconsider his decision. But White on Thursday said he won't risk the town dealing with allegations of impropriety every time a road-related issue arises.

"This will be thrown in my face," White said. "We're not going to have that. I'm not going to deal with that."

White said he will submit a letter of resignation within days. He also said he does not expect to accept a Selectboard position if he is re-elected at the upcoming Town Meeting -- though he did not completely rule out that possibility.

The highway-department issue came to a head during a sometimes-heated Selectboard meeting Wednesday at the community center in West Dummerston.

But the dispute has roots in a long-running disagreement over a September decision of the town's Development Review Board.

The review board denied a site-plan approval and variances requested by Schoolhouse Road residents John and Lori Thibault for a fence standing more than 6 feet high, a deck, and an above-ground pool.

The Thibaults have appealed the board's decision in Vermont Environmental Court. And there has been ongoing debate about whether and how the town should be represented in those proceedings.

It's become clear that some Selectboard members thought the review board's decision was unfair. In one example, Selectman Tom Bodett said during a Nov. 28 meeting that he felt the ruling was "overly restrictive."

"I thought it overstepped ... I didn't feel I could defend it," Bodett said at the time.

In an interview Thursday, Bodett said he since has gained a better understanding of the board's decision.

"But I still think the perception of that case is doing great damage to the overall perception of our planning and zoning process," Bodett said.

The criticism led Herb Rest, the review board's chairman, to read a pointed letter into the record at Wednesday's Selectboard meeting. Rest said his friendship with a neighbor of the Thibaults had no bearing on the board's review, pointing out that the neighbor appeared at an Aug. 15 hearing but did not testify.

"I failed to conclude that I should have recused myself in this matter," Rest wrote.

Rest added that now that the neighbor in question has filed to appear in the Thibault court appeal, he has withdrawn "my candidacy as a town-appointed resource to the court in this matter" to avoid any appearance of a conflict.

He also said continued criticisms from some Selectboard members are "undermining the functionality of the DRB process," and he objected to any allegations of impropriety.

"I reviewed all of the DRB decisions rendered in the last approximately 18 months. I will state categorically that there is no bias suggested and that the decisions consistently reflect the will of the citizens of Dummerston as expressed in their zoning bylaws," Rest wrote.

"I, quite frankly, am bewildered by any contrary conclusion of the Selectboard if they too researched their allegations."

That led resident Jody Normandeau to angrily denounce the Selectboard, saying Rest and review board member Lew Sorenson had been unfairly targeted.

"I have never seen such abuse of another public body," Normandeau said.

She also pointed out the familial relationship between White and Chamberlin. For White to raise a conflict-of-interest question, Normandeau said, "is like a pot calling the kettle black."

White noted that he had recused himself from any involvement in Chamberlin's hiring. But also said he would leave the Selectboard if residents perceive a conflict of interest.

"If it's seen that way, it's seen that way," White said, adding, "this will be my last meeting."

Later in the meeting, other Selectboard members, Town Clerk Pamela McFadden and meeting attendees -- including Normandeau -- asked White to remain on the board.

"This is an inexperienced board," Selectboard member Steve Glabach said. "We need your experience."

But White said much of the town's business is highway-related, and he said he didn't want his vote to be a deciding vote on such issues.

"That shouldn't happen," he said. "So, it won't happen."

For the resignation to be effective, White will have to submit a letter. The Selectboard then would appoint someone to fill that position until Town Meeting, McFadden said Thursday.

White's departure also would complicate the upcoming election. While there are two candidates for a three-year term, White is the only listed candidate for a two-year term on the board and it is too late for his name to be removed.

If he is elected but does not want the position, White would have to resign again.

On Thursday, White said he likely will search for someone else to seek the office.

"I would like to find somebody who wants to run as a write-in and support him," he said.

Bodett, who also is leaving the board as his term expires, said he hopes White reconsiders. He echoed others in saying he never has seen evidence of bias.

On highway-department matters, "if anything, I have seen (White) exercise more caution than the rest us," Bodett said.

Bodett, who was out of town and absent from Wednesday's meeting, said he regrets any role he played in escalating the dispute with the DRB. And he called for a careful re-examination of what truly constitutes a conflict of interest.

"I would like to see everybody take a breather," he said. "Is this really serving the town? No."

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


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