VERNON—Tim Johnson, news director for local radio station WTSA, swings his vehicle into a parking space outside Vernon’s town offices. He trundles from his car, juggling paperwork and a folder of press releases.
Today is more than a municipal news day for Johnson, the name he uses on-air.
Today, he is the news.
“Hi George,” Johnson says to a man exiting the building.
“Tim! How are you?” the man happily replies.
Johnson, a Vernon native, is a fixture in town. His parents ran a local farm. He knows everyone’s name.
With more than four decades in radio, most people would recognize the Vermont Association of Broadcasters Hall of Famer’s voice. Vernonites might recognize Johnson as the town moderator who has run Annual Town Meeting for 17 years.
He climbs the steps to the town hall and enters the lobby at a brisk pace.
Turning quickly to the right, Johnson opens the door to the Town Clerk’s office.
Inside the folders he carries are his petition to run for Town Clerk.
He greets the women behind the counter, Selectboard Assistant Catrina Lawley and Acting Town Clerk Aina Lindquist, who is filling in for sitting Town Clerk Susan Miller.
Opening his folder, Johnson extracts a few yellow pieces of paper.
“I know I shouldn’t worry but I always do,” he said, checking his folder a third time.
Lindquist checks his petition. He needs 18 signatures for his name to appear on the ballot. He gathered 44 just in case.
“I took great pains to ensure they all had legible handwriting,” Johnson said.
He admits to having a nightmare the previous night where he didn’t collect enough signatures.
Johnson jokes a little and chats. He asks about other people on the ballot. He responds to a question from Lindquist. No, he said, looking at the blank spot on the draft ballot. He’s not running for Town Moderator this year.
Lindquist calls from her desk, “You’ve got the names.”
She hands him the consent form for his name to appear on the town ballot. Johnson signs.
WTSA News Director Tim Johnson is now, officially, Tim Arsenault, candidate for Town Clerk of the Town of Vernon.
He thanks Lindquist and tells her he’s off to have a good cry.
Arsenault flops onto a couch in the lobby between the Town Clerk’s office and Vernon Public Library.
He’s not kidding about needing a good cry.
In his heart, Arsenault said he knows running for Town Clerk is the right thing to do. But the decision means walking away from more than 40 years on the radio.
“I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t think it was important,” he said.
As of the afternoon of Jan. 25, Arsenault was one of three candidates vying for the Town Clerk position. Assistant Town Clerk Nancy Gassetts and Melissa Ferriss, a member of the Vernon recreation board, are also running.
A desire to ensure the people of Vernon receive the “highest possible level of service” from their municipality inspired Arsenault to run.
“In a town like Vernon, the clerk is very often the first point of contact for new or current residents,” Arsenault stated. “My goal is to give all of our town’s hard working citizens the first class customer service they deserve, and will do my best to provide a friendly, welcoming tone, for all.”
Citizens must receive the utmost respect, be treated equally, and deserve timely answers from their public officials, Arsenault said.
Arsenault has also served as Brattleboro Union High School (BUHS) district Moderator for 16 years (he graduated from BUHS in 1974), Justice of the Peace for 13 years, and as chair of the Board of Civil Authority for seven years. In 2014, the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce membership named him Person of the Year.
Fairness and respect drove Arsenault to run for Town Moderator, he said. A resident stood to speak during Annual Town Meeting. The old farmer was ridiculed, said Arsenault.
No, he said. If a citizen is willing to stand and speak, they should be able to expect respect.
Vernon is confronting its post-Vermont Yankee reality, Arsenault added. Even recent decisions like raising the price on Pay-as-You-Throw trash bags, affects people’s lives.
“And in the face of that, they all need to be treated with the utmost respect,” he said.
“I don’t have a monopoly on information or common sense, I just know that I’ve seen this town prior to Vermont Yankee, I’ve seen it during Vermont Yankee, and I see it now — and I know I have something to offer,” he said.
Of all the municipal positions, why Town Clerk?
On a practical level, other positions like Selectboard, don’t come with a 40-hour week schedule, he answered. At 59, Arsenault still needs to consider full-time employment.
Arsenault’s decision to run for clerk, however, goes deeper than the paycheck, he said.
A Town Clerk is a gatekeeper, the person who guides citizens through the complexities of complying with town or state law, he said.
“That’s the public face of a small community like this one,” he said.
Arsenault said he wants to help people better access their town’s government, its laws, and its regulations.
“As a community, our best days really should be ahead of us and we really should settle down and figure out who we want to be as a community and work with each other to get there,” he said. “And some of the drama that was evident within the past year really can be understandable when people are in times of stress. But, in order to advance, we can’t have that.”
Arsenault expects his years as Town Moderator and a journalist will help him know where to look for answers to the public’s questions.
For lay people to follow the law, they need to receive good information at the start, he said.
People who have — and will probably continue to help Arsenault — include Selectboard member and former Town Clerk Sandy Harris and Brattleboro Town Clerk Annette Cappy.
In true Arsenault fashion, he veers from the conversation to relate a story.
Walter Bruce, Harris’ father and former Town Constable, lost his house to a fire while Arsenault was still in school, said Arsenault. Arsenault and his father spent many weekends over that winter cutting wood for Bruce’s new house.
That’s small towns for you, Arsenault said.
Bruce shared with Arsenault a nugget of insight that stayed with the younger man.
According to Arsenault, Bruce told him, “If you’re patrolling at a speed higher than 30 mph, you’re stealing from the people because you can’t see everything that’s going on while you’re on duty.”
Janet Rasmussen — whose served on the Selectboard, the Planning Commission, a tax stabilization committee negotiating with Entergy, and on other town boards — stops on her way through the lobby.
She thanks Arsenault for his help with the Planning Commission’s upcoming nonbinding referendum.
Vernon is considering opening its doors to a gas plant project, said Rasmussen. The Planning Commission wants to solicit citizens’ appetite for the project through a nonbinding referendum: check “yes” if they want the plant or “no,” if they don’t.
The question isn’t part of Annual Town Meeting, explained Arsenault. So they needed to find a solution that allowed them to gather voters’ input at Town Meeting without stepping on the public meeting’s procedural toes.
Arsenault said he will miss interviewing people for the radio news spots. He loves interviews that become conversations that lead to new information or insights.
Arsenault said he will remain employed by WTSA during the campaign. While he will gather news and conduct interviews for the station, listeners will no longer hear him on the air.
Under Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules, all candidates have a right to equal air time.
Arsenault said he didn’t want to expose WTSA to such a liability. He said he thanked employer Kelli Corbeil, general manager of WTSA, for supporting his desire to run for public office.
Voter turnout on March 1 will ultimately decide the race, said Arsenault, who noted that a three-way race can easily sway one way or the other, especially with a small turnout.
“I love this town,” he said. “I think the best days are still ahead, but it’ll take all of us.”
Arsenault checks his watch. He’s not the Town Clerk yet.
Gathering his paperwork, he returns to his car and his cell phone. He has an interview scheduled.