GUILFORD — Guilford residents are being asked to weigh in once more on whether they want to see $1.2 million spent on expanding and renovating their town library.
During its April 11 meeting, the Guilford Select Board accepted a petition with more than 150 signatures, calling for a revote on a Town Meeting article that passed 348 to 333.
The vote will be held on May 24, with an information session scheduled for Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. via Zoom (see related story on page A8).
Prior to Town Meeting and during Monday night’s Select Board meeting, Jason Herron, who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the board, contended a decision to recommend voters approve the use of nearly $200,000 of town funds for the library project represented a conflict of interest for a board member who is also a member of the library’s board of trustees.
“[Board member] Richard Wizansky should not have been discussing matters concerning the library while he’s simultaneously filling the role of an elected official of the town since August of 2019,” wrote Herron in a document presented to the Reformer.
Herron also has contended since before Town Meeting that $195,000 of public funds “were earmarked for the library addition in violation of Open Meeting Law, or Mr. Wizansky acted on his own and used town resources without notifying the Select Board, which is a violation of state statute.”
Board Chairman Zon Eastes, speaking on behalf of the entire board, read a statement during Monday’s meeting in which he concluded, after meeting with the attorney for the town, that there was no violation.
“None by statute, none by definition and none by perception. None that could be supported by any legal standard. This is not my personal opinion, this is the reading of Guilford’s legal counsel,” read Eastes. “Select Board member and library trustee is not a conflict listed in the statute, at any level. [Wizansky] was vetted and cleared regarding conflict of interest before running for office. By Vermont historical practice and law, there is no conflict of interest. This fact, known by the alleger, has yet to alter the allegation offered in our community.”
During Monday night’s meeting, during which Herron was given five minutes, with another two added later, to present his case, Herron referenced a 2019 board meeting during which Town Administrator Peder Rude advised of the “potential” conflict of interest.
Eastes said Rude’s comment during that meeting was “a misstatement.”
“This mistake was noted and has not been repeated,” read Eastes during Monday’s meeting. “By statute, no conflict of interest existed at that recorded moment, nor does it now. .”
Eastes also acknowledged the town has received five requests for documents, requests the town has not responded to in a timely manner.
Eastes told the Reformer on Tuesday that while some of the requests have been complied with either fully or in part, Rude’s recent cancer diagnosis has delayed the town’s response.
One of the requests made by Herron includes five years of conflict of interest statements signed by board members each year.
Eastes said those statements are not required by state statute.
“[T]his by no means makes the request for documents invalid,” read Eastes during the meeting. “It does probably mean that the individual making the request will likely come up disappointed. While each Vermont town is required to have a conflict of interest policy, no Select Board members are required to annually sign nor must such policy statements be retained.”
A conflict of interest is defined in Guilford policy as “a personal or financial advantage from his or her work for the town ... All decisions made by town employees shall be made based on the best interest of the community at large rather than the interests of any particular individual or employee.”
In documents presented to the Reformer, Herron stated board member Verandah Porche “acknowledges there will be a room in the new library for nonprofits to meet. Mr. Wizansky’s Florida-based business’ sole function is to assist nonprofits.”
On Wednesday, Wizansky told the Reformer Herron’s allegations are “preposterous.”
“It’s preposterous that I would want to have an addition to the library that I could have as a private office to meet with nonprofit clients, because I don’t have that business anymore,” he said. “Secondly, when I did have that business, I met with clients in their offices. So, let’s be clear. I don’t have that business anymore. I never met there. I don’t meet with clients in public spaces, which is the way that consultants work.”
Wizansky also said that it was made quite clear before Town Meeting that the Select Board recommended voters approve use of the $195,000 toward the costs of the renovation and expansion and didn’t explicitly direct the money for that purpose.
“I wanted the citizens of Guilford to decide whether they wanted an addition or not. The Select Board never, never said we should have a library. They put it to the town’s vote.”
Wizansky acknowledged he still has an active website, but said his business itself is not active.
Herron also contended that if Eastes met with an attorney to discuss conflict of interest, there is nothing in the public record that indicates the board voted to allow him to speak with the lawyer on its behalf.
“[O]pen meeting requirements do not prevent a board from delegating authority to handle a particular task to a member of the board, so long as the decision to delegate authority has properly made by a majority of the board in an open meeting,” he said, reading from state statutes.
“We’re not trying to hide anything,” Eastes told the Reformer. “I’m trying to appeal to Jason that common sense can rule here.”
Eastes, who said he will request a written statement from the town’s attorney, said his job as board chairman is to manage the regular meetings.
“I tried in a certain way last night that didn’t work. It was very tense and very uncomfortable for everybody.”
Eastes said a public meeting just to discuss Herron’s allegations would be appropriate.
“I offered to meet with you and anyone in a public setting to discuss this,” said Eastes during Monday’s meeting. “This is a continuing conversation in our community, and I’m willing and ready to have it. I want to have it, because we all live here together. And we all need to understand how it is we’re going to live together.”
Herron expressed displeasure that he was given only five minutes to talk, while others who spoke before him were given more time.
“This is a farce,” said Herron, after he was told his extra two minutes were over.
Resident Christina Belogour urged the board and Herron to resolve this issue together.
“It seems a lot of the confusion may be handled if the lawyer were able to speak to the town and explain why he or she is making an interpretation of the statute the way that they are,” said Belogour, who is the wife of Paul Belogour, the owner of Vermont News & Media, the parent company of the Reformer. “I think that would maybe end some of the debate, if there are actual just facts to point to.”
The May 9 meeting was recorded by BCTV and can be found on its website.
Herron is the son of John Herron, a board member of Duke Energy and the former chief nuclear officer and CEO of Entergy Nuclear. He got his start as a power plant operator at Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.
Jason Herron is the “district captain” for Convention of States, an organization calling for a Constitutional Convention to allow the states to discuss amendments that “limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, impose fiscal restraints and place term limits on federal officials.”
Convention of States has received endorsements from Gov. Ron DiSantis of Florida, Mark Meadows, former chief of staff to President Donald Trump, Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Sen. Rand Paul, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.