Jerry Storey has a mantra he shares frequently about how a town’s governing body should conduct itself: “The selectboard is its own best example.”
Another guiding principle for Storey? A selectboard should practice what it preaches when members interact with each other.
While Storey loathes to take too much credit, many praise him — and a few other board members — for bringing civility and stability back to the Shelburne Selectboard after a number of years of turmoil and dissension.
As a board member, and then as chair, Storey also gets high marks for his attentiveness to divergent opinions.
“However you feel people should be treated in the community, it starts with selectboard behavior,” said Storey, who arrived in Shelburne about eight years ago, was elected two years later to the selectboard, and tapped to be chair a year in to his term.
In Storey’s first years on the board, Shelburne was embroiled in a lengthy, and costly, legal challenge to block the Vermont Railway from building a salt shed north of Shelburne village on Route 7, near the LaPlatte River.
The salt shed itself, and the legal battle to stop it, caused deep divisions in town. Many called it a lost cause from the start. Shelburne lost three rounds in federal court, after which the town decided not to appeal a March 2019 ruling in favor of the railroad by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City.
“That effort cost half a million dollars,” Storey said.
The issue centered around environmental concerns, economic development issues, and having an industrial presence in bucolic Shelburne. Eventually, the costly legal bills took center stage.
“There was no lack of opinion,” Storey said. “It was very spirited and robust. Sometimes it spilled over into the impolite and — if I dare say so — the intemperate.”
Opponents of the legal battle called it an unwise use of town money, as the odds of winning against the railroad were small. Railroads have a federal preemption that stretches back into the 1800s, “rooted mostly in the history of railroad development in the West, when very, very small communities, one after the other, would sometimes enact regulations” that were different from town to town, he said.
The railroads successfully lobbied Congress to be regulated by a single standard.
Storey credits selectboard members Jaime Heins, Colleen Parker and others for helping to reestablish faith that the community could govern itself.
“My concern from the very beginning was that the selectboard is the guardian of self-government,” he said. “We were at some risk of loss of confidence in the community and the town’s ability to self-govern.”
Re-establishing respectful discourse at meetings was a team effort, stressed Storey.
The first step was to give members of the community a chance to talk and then listen attentively and respectfully, he said.
“A citizen who comes to a meeting with something to say and does so in a civil respectful manner should have every opportunity to say it,” Storey said. “We also demonstrated by our own example that there was a way to do things collaboratively and productively. And there was a way not to, and we were bound and determined to do it the right way.”
Said Michael Ashooh, the current selectboard chair: “Jerry shepherded us out of difficult and dark times.”
After Storey, he is the next longest-serving member of the board.
At the board’s May 11 meeting, Storey decided to step down as chair over a disagreement with board member Cate Cross when she called his proposal, to rescind a just-passed motion to make Shelburne’s diversity and equity task force an official town committee, rude.
Two weeks later, he submitted a formal resignation as chair, but he remains a regular member of the selectboard.
Storey called the comment “intemperate,” and felt the May 11 discussion harkened back to the selectboard’s recent past when he said meetings were too contentious.
Since his resignation, countless community members have publicly lamented his resignation as chair and thanked him for his steady hand, even-handed style and temperament.
Joyce George of Shelburne applauded Storey’s calm, mild manner. “He listens to everyone,” she said.
Shortly after coming to Shelburne, Storey walked into town hall and offered his services. After all, he served as a town manager for 18 years in several communities in Maine.
After getting his undergraduate degree in anthropology from Yale, Storey worked for a couple of years on Wall Street, but then came the Korean War.
After his discharge from the Coast Guard, he taught for a year. He couldn’t get a teacher’s certificate because Yale didn’t offer them, so he pursued his master’s in anthropology and education in a joint program between Columbia University and the Columbia Teachers College.
Toward the end of his master’s degrees, mired in his dissertation, Storey moved to Atlanta, finding work at Georgia State University teaching both anthropology and education.
The move to Atlanta came, he said, because he “wanted to be involved directly in the public-school issues of the day, one of which was integration.”
He later served as a research director in Greer, S.C., at one of six public school sites in the country funded to demonstrate, among other things, open classrooms and school integration.
Storey then moved to Washington to work at the Office of Economic Opportunity, where he worked under both presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, which is where he discovered a growing interest in local government.
With no experience, he found a job as a town manager in the small town of Princeton, Maine.
“I learned the business from the ground up with a town clerk, who taught me most of what I know,” Storey said.
Educators as leaders
Education informs and influences Storey’s philosophy of town government.
Storey grew up in a family of teachers. His father was a school coach and athletic director. His sister, aunt and first wife were teachers, as is his daughter-in-law.
“I grew up professionally in a time when educators were highly respected for their leadership in their communities, and not just their prowess as teachers,” he said. “The Latin for education is ‘to lead.’”
Storey said he suspects people attending selectboard meetings have sometimes thought he was trying to make a learning opportunity out of a board discussion.
After the death of his first wife, Storey met Anna Watson of Shelburne through a dating app and moved here from Maine. Of online dating, he said, “All I can say is it succeeded mightily in our case.”
If there’s one thing Storey wants to be clear about it is that he does not deserve sole credit for the change in tone of Shelburne Selectboard meetings or the things the board accomplished during his tenure as chair.
However, he is clearly proud of several accomplishments, including negotiating the purchase of property for the town to build a fire and rescue station, initiating the finance committee and the equity and diversity task force, and building a strong bond between the board and town manager Lee Krohn, who was hired during Storey’s tenure.
Storey said part of the reason for starting an equity and diversity task force was a study that ranked Shelburne as having a disproportionate number of traffic stops of people of color, Storey said.
Rather than just focus on the police, Storey felt Shelburne should address inequity and exclusion town-wide.
“It was my feeling from the beginning that the committee deserves status as a major part of town government and just like the finance committee that I initiated, just like natural resources, just like social services, just like recreation and so forth,” Storey said.