Vernon Town Administrator resigns
VERNON — Recent Vernon Select Board meetings have sparked some controversy, and on Tuesday night, there was a big surprise too.
Early in the Board's Tuesday night meeting, an executive session was called to discuss a personnel matter. When the board reconvened in public session, Board Chairman Josh Unruh called a vote on accepting the resignation of Town Administrator Michelle Pong. With no debate, the board unanimously accepted the resignation.
"It is with deep regret but high optimism that I submit my resignation from the Town of Vernon," wrote Pong in her resignation letter. "It is my hope that I leave Vernon having added value to the community and positioned the town for great accomplishments in the coming years."
Pong noted that as required by her contract, she would remain in her position for another 30 days, until Jan. 30.
"There is never the perfect time for change, however I am amenable to discussing what help I may be able to provide in preparation for Town Meeting 2020," wrote Pong. "Thank you for the opportunity to serve this wonderful community."
Board member Chris Parker told the Reformer on Thursday he was surprised when Pong presented her resignation letter. "It caught us all off guard. It's not what any of us wanted to see."
Through her efforts, said Parker, Pong has made the job of a board member just a little bit easier.
"Michelle has done a tremendous amount of work to bring Vernon forward during this transition period post Vermont Yankee," said Parker. "Her services are going to be missed."
"Michelle has been a great asset to our community and we wish her well in her future endeavors," wrote Unruh in an email to the Reformer. "During her time here, Michelle has done an exemplary job."
"It was with deep regret that the Vernon Select Board accepted Michelle Pong's resignation as Town Administrator in order for her to pursue other opportunities and challenges elsewhere," wrote Board member Jeff Dunklee in an email to the Reformer. "She had to (re)build the administration of this town from the ground up. This has been a major accomplishment and Michelle needs to be commended for the amount of progress that has been made since she started."
"It has been wonderful working for such a dedicated community, but it's time for me to move on to other opportunities," stated Pong in a press release announcing her resignation.
Pong, of West Chesterfield, N.H., was hired as town administrator in May 2016. Before that, she was the program director of the Lead Safe & Healthy Homes program of the Parks Place Community Resource Center in Bellows Fall.
"I wanted to acknowledge Michelle's work for the Planning Commission for over two years and that we're really going to miss having her as our town administrator," Vernon Planning Commission Chairman Bob Spencer told the Reformer. "So it's a loss for the town. She's been an excellent resource and very effective in writing and securing grants for the Planning Commission."
BOARD HEARS BUDGET CONCERNS FROM TOWN RESIDENT
During Tuesday night's meeting and at the meeting on Dec. 17, Vernon resident Melissa Allen was invited into executive session to discuss what she said was "a few discrepancies in some of the Select Board spending" in the hopes of working together "to be a little better about this."
Allen wanted to talk about the board's spending for travel and training, and about Pong's time sheets. There was no evidence presented at the meeting that anyone misused funds.
"If we're going to be talking about somebody's personnel [issue], we need to do this is in executive session," said Unruh. "If you're talking about people's time sheets, their pay, their vacation time ... any of that is a personnel item."
Allen noted that all the documents she had were public records.
"There's nothing that the public can't get that I have," she said.
"But you're discussing changes or those things that need to be done in executive session because it's a personnel issue," said Unruh.
"I'm just pointing out some discrepancies that I found," said Allen.
Prior going into executive session, Unruh said under his breath "Nobody wants to hear this [expletive]."
Allen asked if Unruh had called her "a piece of [expletive]?" Unruh vehemently denied saying so. Board member Sandy Harris said while Unruh did say the last word, he did not call Allen "a piece of [expletive]."
Unruh did not respond to a question about his comment during the meeting. Parker told the Reformer that Unruh's comment was inappropriate. Harris and board member Jean Carr did not respond by press time to requests for comment. Dunklee wrote in his email that he had no comment "as I didn't clearly hear what he said at the time."
On Thursday, Allen told the Reformer that when she reviewed the documents she obtained through the treasurer's office, she learned the Select Board had overspent its budget of $3,500 for training and travel by $2,000.
"The money that was allowed was not being used by all of the Select Board, primarily one or two people," said Town Treasurer Cindy Turnley, who confirmed those two people were Unruh and Pong.
Unruh said he wasn't at liberty to disclose anything that was discussed in an executive session.
"There were absolutely no discrepancies," wrote Unruh in an email to the Reformer. "All spending is reviewed and approved by the board on a regular basis."
Unruh is a former employee of the Brattleboro Reformer.
As a result of Allen's concerns, the board refined its travel and training reimbursement policy to require anyone who attends training bring back any materials and knowledge gained and be prepared to explain how any training and travel paid for out of the budget is of benefit to the town or how the board operates.
"The training that we receive at these conferences is extremely important, especially for myself," said Parker, who's been on the board for only two years.
Nonetheless, he said, it's important that the board members keep a close watch on how the money is spent.
Parker said having a full-time job makes it hard for him to attend trainings, so it's not unusual that one board member might be attending more trainings than another board member.
"A lot of it comes down to scheduling," said Parker.
"I firmly believe that Vernon Select board members have a fiduciary responsibly to the taxpayers of the town," wrote Dunklee in an email to the Reformer. "But we also are not perfect. We are not much more than a part-time, volunteer group of folks leading very busy lives outside of our service to our community. But I believe Select Board members, for the most part, have a strong desire to serve the community that we love and to do the best we can representing our fellow residents."
EXECUTIVE SESSION CONFUSION
In a pair of letters to the Vernon Select Board, town resident Martin Langeveld took issue with the reasons that the board justified executive sessions to discuss Allen's concerns.
"You have now given three different reasons for going into executive session to discuss the same matter with Melissa Allen," wrote Langeveld, who is also a member of the board of New England Newspapers, Inc., the parent company of the Reformer. "On December 17, you cited 'grievances other than tax grievances.' Then in the minutes of that meeting you changed that motion to 'the appointment or employment or evaluation of a public officer or employee.' (And you failed to correct that discrepancy when ratifying the Dec. 17 minutes.) And now [on Jan. 7] you've used yet a third reason, the 'discussion or consideration of records or documents that are exempt from the public records laws.' Which is the real reason? Why does it keep changing?
"I highly doubt you discussed any records or documents that qualify under Vermont's statutes as being exempt from public records laws," wrote Langeveld. "Publicly available payroll and expense records certainly do not [qualify]."
During the Jan. 7 meeting, Allen told the board she had learned from Langeveld the board might have violated Vermont's open meetings law. Unruh responded by asking Allen if Langeveld was a lawyer.
"You implied, in your question to Melissa, that since I'm not a lawyer, I don't know what I'm talking about," wrote Langeveld. "Feel free to believe that, but if you're going to dismiss my concerns (which are based on some 40 years of experience in the newspaper business in which we had frequent dealings with municipalities about open meeting matters), at least do it after consulting a real lawyer, like your town attorney or Jenny Prosser in the Secretary of State's Office, General Counsel and Director of Municipal Assistance."
Langeveld suggested it might be time for the members of the Vernon Select Board to request an update on the state's open meetings law from the Secretary of State's Office.
"The Board is knowledgeable of open meeting laws and is confident that our Executive Sessions are justified," wrote Unruh in his email to the Reformer.
BCTV records all of the Vernon Select Board meetings. They can be found at www.brattleborotv.org.
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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