Halifax residents sue town over handling of resignation

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HALIFAX — A group of 41 residents is suing the town in hopes of forcing the Select Board to hold a special election to fill the seat of a board member who rescinded his resignation.

"The plaintiffs," attorney Cara Cheyette wrote in a complaint filed Aug. 3 in Windham Superior Court, Civil Division in Newfane, "seek a declaration that the Halifax Select Board violated the law in its handling of a recent Select Board resignation. This violation of law was the culmination of months of controversy concerning the Select Board's breach of the public's trust and what many believe was a misuse of the public's funds. That controversy was sparked by two Select Board members agreeing to purchase property from the third member — the member whose resignation is the subject of this complaint."

Brad Rafus announced he was resigning from his seat at a board meeting on June 26. He cited threats made against his family stemming from the land deal in which he and his wife were going to be the sellers.

The complaint states Select Board Chairman Lewis Sumner and Select Board Vice Chairman Mitchell Green refused to acknowledge the vacancy or accept a petition submitted by residents seeking a special town meeting to elect someone to the position.

The June 26 meeting was scheduled "in response to public outcry" following a meeting held three days earlier where attendees could only participate by coming to the physical location at a time when health concerns are heightened due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the complaint. The earlier meeting had more than 40 attendees, with many of them interested in a petition calling for a special vote about the land deal, Cheyette wrote.

That petition was signed by about 80 residents "in response to an agreement executed in November 2019 whereby ... Sumner and Green agreed to purchase property from Rafus and his wife for $99,500 for the purpose of a town-owned gravel pit," according to the complaint, which notes that Rafus also is the town's road foreman and road commissioner, and his wife was the town-appointed emergency management director.

Before resigning from the Select Board, Rafus announced he and his wife would not be extending the July 15 closing date for the property. He spoke about his family being harassed then left the meeting before its end.

At a later meeting, Sumner and Green said they would need the resignation in writing before accepting it. But the complaint points to state law saying, "when a town officer resigns ... or has been removed therefrom, or dies, or becomes unable to perform his or her duties due to mental condition or psychiatric disability, or moves from town, such office shall become vacant."

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A vacancy should be posted by the board in at least two public places in town, and in and near the town clerk's office within 10 days of the creation of the vacancy, according to state law cited in the complaint.

Sumner told July 7 meeting participants the Rafuses suffered a family tragedy over the weekend but the board made no mention of the vacant board seat, according to the complaint. A petition calling for a special meeting to elect a new board member was not accepted by the board at the meeting.

The vacancy was not on the July 21 meeting agenda, according to the complaint. But after the meeting was called to order, Rafus said he was withdrawing his "informal resignation" from the board.

"I was under duress at the time and made a hasty decision," he said.

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Cheyette described the recantation being challenged by residents.

"For example, Plaintiff [Tristan] Roberts raised questions about how it had happened that the Select Board could have directed town counsel to conduct research into the validity of Rafus's resignation without there having been a meeting convened for that purpose," she wrote, adding that others questioned why Rafus changed his mind and whether the board's handling of the resignation was a direct response to the petition for a special meeting on the vacancy. "Neither Rafus nor the Select Board offered any explanation."

Cheyette said the board acted to accept the resignation by conducting business immediately after the resignation, and Rafus waived his right to rescind by not doing so within a 10-day notice period.

GRAVEL PIT

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Referring to the six months leading up to the November 2019 agreement, Cheyette said board meeting minutes include no note of there being interest in acquiring a gravel pit nor that the board was negotiating with the Rafuses.

"There is no mention in the minutes that the Select Board purchased land from the Rafuses until weeks after the deal was signed," she wrote.

She noted one of the conditions of the deal involved town approval of the expense at annual Town Meeting in March.

Cheyette said residents raised concerns that the item was included in the highway budget for gravel for the coming year and not mentioned in the town report, at the informational meeting prior to the annual meeting or at Town Meeting. They also questioned how the price tag came about, why there had been no independent evaluation of the site and whether the town's conflict of interest/code of ethics police had been violated, according to the complaint.

The board has defended the purchase as a way to cut down on expenses associated with traveling out of town for material. Shortly before the deal was called off, Stevens & Associates of Brattleboro was hired to conduct a land survey.

On Monday, Sumner told the Reformer he would not discuss pending litigation. An agenda item for a special meeting that night was anticipated to give the town attorney authority to respond to the suit.

The names of the plaintiffs and their relation to events account for about six of the filing's 18 pages. The list includes Marilyn Allen, Rhonda Aschraft, Scott Aschraft, Carl Barmen, Janice Bliss, Chiara Carasi-Schwartz, Francesca Carasi-Schwartz, Penfield Chester, Lynda Copeland, Edee Edwards, Deborah Fajans, Norman Fajans, Arthur Ferland, Kaylyn Gaskell, Richard Gay, Fabio Girelli-Carasi, Bonny Hall, Matt Hardgrove, Philip Hardgrove, Regina Hardgrove, Vicki Hardgrove, Earl Holtz, Patricia Holtz, James Keithline, Susan Kelly, Kathy McLean, Brian McNeice, Jonathan Lorch, Linda Lyon, Matt Maranian, Susan Neustadt, Loretta Palazzo, Chris Parkins, Lesley Pollitt, Jennifer Preston, Tristan Roberts, Paula Schwartz, Peter Silverberg, Magdalena Sole and Everett Wilson.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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