An anonymous letter disparaging a board member and the municipal manager caused acrimony during Monday night’s meeting of the Waterbury Select Board.
During a discussion of a motion to study the feasibility of building a community center in town, board chair Chris Viens read a letter purportedly from a Waterbury resident who supported Viens’ opposition to a community center, while criticizing board member Mark Frier and Municipal Manager William Shepeluk.
The Waterbury Record has a policy of not publishing anonymous letters or using anonymous quotes and will not reproduce the content of the letter.
“Why does this person get to remain anonymous?” Shepeluk asked Viens.
Viens said he had promised the letter writer he would preserve the author’s anonymity.
“I think its highly inappropriate that you read a letter from someone anonymously,” Frier said.
Viens pointed to a select board meeting on April 15, when the board voted by secret ballot not to accept a settlement agreement in a human rights complaint against the town that alleges the town discriminated against a child enrolled in its summer camp program.
“What’s the difference between this and voting by paper ballot to reject a court case?” Viens asked.
On July 8, the board tabled a vote to engage an architecture firm to study the feasibility of building a community center in town. The study — paid for by a $36,000 community development block grant, plus $6,250 previously authorized by the town — would examine costs, possible locations and the overall needs of the town.
However, two of the board’s five members — Michael Bard and Jane Brown — were absent from that meeting and Viens expressed his opposition to even studying the feasibility of a community center on the principle that building one would lead to higher taxes.
“I hate to be a stick in the mud, but I’m going to be. Unfortunately, I can’t approve this myself,” Viens said. “Quite honestly, at this time, my taxes are high enough, and I can’t justify … we have enough on our plate to deal with that is going to drive our taxes even more,” Viens said at the time.
With only three board members in attendance — and the action needing the affirmative vote of three members — the board voted to table the vote until Monday’s meeting, which saw Jane Brown in attendance.
“We postponed the vote last week so I could be outvoted this week,” Viens said Monday, drawing the displeasure of Brown.
“I’d like to object,” Brown said. “I haven’t said how I will vote.”
Viens’ action could be considered a violation of Vermont’s open meeting law. In August 2018, during a meeting of the Harwood School Board, the board employed an online tool that allowed the board to receive anonymous comments.
The board later received advice from its attorney that the action violated Vermont’s open meeting law, and the board corrected the action by agreeing not to do it again.
Unlike other laws in Vermont, there is no legal consequence for violating open meeting laws.
After Monday night’s meeting, Viens said he did not know his action could be considered a violation of the law.
Frier pushed back, not just on the nature of the anonymous comments, but on the idea that Viens was the only person on the board who cares about taxes.
“I do care about Waterbury being a fiscally responsible town, but we sit here to think, not just about ourselves, but about the community as a whole,” Frier said. “The idea that it’s you versus us, or you’re the only one who is trying to control spending is ridiculous, and it’s getting old. You don’t always get the final word.”
Shepeluk pushed back on factual inaccuracies in the letter.
“This is not hatched by my staff. This came from the community, and the community came to the select board to ask for this,” Shepeluk said.
The idea for a community center was born out of a community gathering in January 2018, which determined there was a need for a space in town to provide services for senior citizens and affordable child care.
“I don’t disagree with the opinion of the letter writer. There are people who struggle with their taxes. There are people who think their taxes are too high. I have no problem with the sentiment of the letter. I am a bit miffed that they get to come here and hide behind you,” Shepeluk said.
In the end, the board voted 3-1 to authorize the study, with Viens casting the lone no vote. Voting in favor of the study was Brown, Frier and Nathaniel Fish. Once again, Bard was absent.