In Vernon Town Report flap, Howe wants Gassett to quit clerk race

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VERNON >> Selectboard Chairwoman Chris Howe suggests a candidate for town clerk — who along with two others signed a town clerk's report endorsing herself as "the best choice" — step away from the election and the Town Clerk's Office where she is as an assistant.

"How anyone could believe using the annual report for electioneering purposes doesn't fall into the unfair category?" Howe said, reading from a statement.

"Can anyone honestly think that it is ethically or morally correct to use the annual Town Report as a vehicle for their personal campaign letter, knowing full well it will reach every household in Vernon?" she continued.

"I am absolutely awestruck by your audacity," Howe said at Wednesday night's Selectboard meeting, referencing Assistant Town Clerk Nancy Gassett who did not attend. "I'm not kidding. I felt I owed it to the community to let you know my personal stance to what has happened to our Town Report."

Howe said her thoughts and opinions on the matter were her own and not those of the board or town.

Gassett, who is running against Tim Arsenault and Melissa Ferris for the position, was appointed by Town Clerk Susan Miller. Miller was elected to the position, but has been out due to health issues. Aina Lindquist is the acting town clerk.

At Wednesday night's meeting, the Selectboard approved of taking office keys from Gassett after hearing residents raise concerns about her being there after hours. The board also discussed holding elected officials to the town policy if they wanted to sign up for benefits and reimbursements.

Elected officials are not subject to the town employee policy, according to Town Attorney Larry Slason. Vernon's policy states that town employees may be a candidate for election at Town Meeting "provided that their position with the Town is not used in any way to further their candidacy" and "the pursuit of political activities while working, or through the use of Town facilities, is strictly prohibited."

Reached Tuesday by telephone, Gassett confirmed she was still running.

"Absolutely," she said when asked. "I don't know anything about that (Howe's statement). I wasn't there and I wasn't informed about it. I didn't receive anything from the Selectboard."

Regarding concerns around the report, Gassett said she heard some people talking about it.

"But I don't believe it to be as big a problem as some people are trying to make it out to be," she said.

Slason and the Secretary of State's Office advised the Selectboard that the statement in the report could be considered campaign material, and therefore the Town Report cannot be in the vicinity of polling areas. The report also could be banned on the night or nights that voters decide the town budget because the Town Clerk's Office is part of it.

Elections are Tuesday. But Vernon will hold Town Meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 29 and 7:30 p.m. on March 2 at the Vernon Elementary School.

A supplemental document will be put together by Treasurer Cindy Turnley. If approved by the board, Howe said it would be printed Thursday.

Howe said she received 30 or 40 complaints on the day she received the Town Report. She called the report "eagerly anticipated" by residents who feel it is "a sacred piece of material" and who feel strongly that using it as a campaign instrument was a violation of their "hard-earned tax dollars and trust."

"To defile it sends shock waves through our town," said Howe. "Every single one of the calls I got were from people who were appalled at the idea that anyone would use this book for any purpose other than to inform residents of the town's financial affairs and review actions taken by boards and committees over the last 12 months. What has been done is unethical to say the least."

Town clerk, treasurer and Selectboard offices are unique, Howe said, because they are elected officials who have no legal right to interfere with the administration or practices of each office. Assistants are appointed upon election.

"The Selectboard cannot hire or fire those assistants or in any way rule over them as these offices are governed by statute and not by local rule," Howe said.

Board member Emily Vergobbe read from Slason's letter saying his office looked at town policy, state laws and case law.

"It is our professional opinion that the clerk's report is not illegal... But this material may be considered campaign literature and thus must be barred by the polling place by the polling officer," the letter said. "The town clerks have used the Town Report to endorse one of the clerks as candidate for continuation in the office of town clerk. This may be an exercise in poor judgment but it is not unlawful."

This year's report presents a weak case for undue influence, Slason's letter said. His recommendation was to not allow the report to be near polling areas as it could be considered campaigning during polling, which is prohibited by law.

"Town reports have become creatures of tradition that greatly exceed what is required under Vermont statutes," the letter said. "While envisioned primarily as financial documents, town reports have grown to include a wide variety of additional materials including photographs, town histories as well as reports of town officials. As such, there is very little guidance by case or statute."

Contact Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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