The Stowe Selectboard spent nearly three hours Monday wordsmithing the town’s personnel and sexual harassment policies in an effort to come up with language that protects individual employees, their colleagues, their employer and the general public.
Normally, such policy-crafting sessions wouldn’t be politically or emotionally charged, but the town, for half a year, has been under pressure to do so from some in the community who are also calling for the termination of fire chief Kyle Walker, who was already fired as a police officer last spring after admitting to having sex while on duty several years ago. Walker has also been accused of sexual assault, a claim he has denied and one that prosecutors have declined to pursue.
The board didn’t take any action Monday night to approve the policies, but rather sent them back for more work. Attending the meeting was town lawyer Kerin Stackpole, who answered questions and collected input to further refine the town’s policies.
A few people who have consistently kept pressure on the town to get rid of Walker offered their thoughts Monday night. Those included a suggestion to make the policies better reflect the significance of power dynamics between town employees, especially those with badges and guns, and the community.
There was also a suggestion from board member Lisa Hagerty to craft a statement of values reflecting the town’s stance against employee sexual misconduct.
Becky Gonyea, executive director of the Clarina Howard Nichols Center, asked if Walker would have been fired wholesale back in May — when he was fired as a cop — if the proposed revised policy had been in place.
No one answered.
Gonyea said afterward she was satisfied that the selectboard “didn’t just go and pass something,” and that its members seem to be focused on being thorough, if not swift.
Town Manager Charles Safford said Monday’s policy work session was the second one this year, and the board continues to make progress. It was the only agenda item of note on Monday’s meeting, a luxury that won’t likely be available as the town soon enters the budget-making season.
Safford said societal mores and expectations change over the years, and policies must reflect that what used to be acceptable — or at least tolerated — workplace behavior just won’t fly anymore, especially regarding sexual harassment or bigoted language.
With Vermont being an at-will state with relatively few unionized workers, policies can ensure employees get a fair shake, instead of being at the whim of supervisors who could fire them for just about any reason, he said.
“It’s not in our interest to be arbitrary or discriminatory,” he said. “It can restrain us sometimes, but it is in everybody’s interest that we have a thoughtful process.”