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Attorney says clerk’s politicking on bond vote was a matter of propriety, not law

Board amends personnel policy; Cristelli responds to criticism over advocacy for funding new town offices

NEWFANE—After controversy over an elected official’s advocacy for a reconsideration of the town offices bond vote, the Selectboard has voted changes to the town personnel policy to prohibit employees from using municipal property without advance permission from the board.

But the town employee whose recent actions prompted the town to seek legal clarification believes her actions weren’t unreasonable.

“I’m frustrated, and it makes me angry,” Town Clerk Gloria Cristelli said. “I’ve done and continue to do my job, and beyond.”

Town Attorney Richard Carroll has advised the town that Cristelli’s collecting voter signatures while at work in the Town Offices didn’t stray from the letter of the law.

But Carroll warned that Cristelli created “a clear perception of a conflict of interest” with her advocacy for the issue — “especially for a vote concerning bonds to pay for capital improvements to her office,” he wrote.

Carroll offered his opinion in a Sept. 16 letter to Administrative Assistant Shannon Mecklein.

The attorney, responding to questions from board members Gary Delius and Marion Dowling, concluded that it wasn’t proper for town employees to seek signatures on petitions on town property.

Carroll recommended that the town amend its personnel policy to reflect that “property and equipment should be used for town/public purposes and not for personal purposes,” specifically those “advocating a particular personal position on a town vote.”

The attorney also addressed the complaint of a resident who said his ballot wasn’t placed in the ballot box.

“There is no specific evidence that either the Town Clerk or any specific member of the Board of Civil Authority failed to place that ballot in the voter box; rather, it is just his concern in hindsight,” the attorney concluded.

The petition

After the failure on Aug. 9 of the first article in the town offices bond vote — asking if the town should raise up to $950,000 for construction on a new building — a successful petition was submitted to the Selectboard calling for a revote.

Cristelli kept a copy of that petition in her office and told The Commons that she asked people to sign it. She said she asked visitors to her office if they would sign, and “if they said, ‘no,’ that’s fine.”

At least one resident publicly complained of “coercion” from Cristelli, which prompted board members to contact the attorney.

The town clerk disputes that account.

Carroll acknowledged in his letter that the town clerk is an elected official; thus, the Selectboard “has no say” in how she chooses to run her office, the attorney wrote.

But he asserted that “there is a clear perception of a conflict of interest if the town clerk has a petition for a revote available for signing in her office, especially for a vote concerning bonds to pay for capital improvements to her office.”

He continued, “Residents of the town should have access to the town offices without a perception of undue influence.”

Although Carroll noted no Vermont statute clearly prohibits a petition located in a town office, he said, “No town employee, either elected or hired, should be seen as advocating a petition to reconsider a town vote.”

The Selectboard had previously postponed addressing an agenda item on whether to amend the personnel policy to prohibit petitions in town offices at their Oct. 3 and 17 meetings.

Reasonable advocacy?

In a conversation with The Commons, Cristelli responded to Carroll’s recommendations.

If the Selectboard makes this change, she said, it should apply to all town offices and employees.

She noted that some members of the Selectboard and the Listers office have asked residents to sign petitions in the past.

Cristelli noted that some town employees who wish to engage in gathering signatures have no alternative to soliciting from the workplace “because they’re in their cubicles all day.”

And she believes that her advocacy for the issue is hardly unreasonable.

“Should the town clerk who works in these conditions, with mold in the town records and the windows ... should I say that I want a new town office? Absolutely yes,” said Cristelli, who had previously announced her plans not to seek reelection in the spring.

She noted that members of the Selectboard have promoted their individual positions on the town office issue in open meeting.

This isn’t the first petition she’s had on her desk, Cristelli said, mentioning a drive to get the Red Cross on a Town Meeting agenda to decide if taxpayer money will help fund the local branch. Nobody complained about that petition, she said.

Mailing leads to policy change

Just before the town bond vote, a number of voters received a document anonymously, with no return address, via the U.S. Postal Service.

After the vote, Cristelli acknowledged that she sent the mailing, which consisted of a chart detailing differences in cost, effects on property taxes, and practical considerations of three options for the town offices: Continue piecemeal renovations; add to and thoroughly renovate the current building; or sell it and build a new one.

Though Cristelli was off the clock when she assembled the mailing, she did so on town property and used some town supplies to write, print, copy, and mail the documents. She said she reimbursed the town for any municipal supplies she used.

At the next few Selectboard meetings, the Board expressed anger and disappointment at Cristelli.

“‘Confronted’ is too strong a word, but two Selectboard members asked me for receipts to prove I didn’t use town supplies,” Cristelli said, “but I don’t save receipts.”

“They said I could just write it down,” she said. “If they don’t trust me when I say I paid for my own supplies, why would they trust me with a handwritten receipt?”

Cristelli said she was later able to locate the postage receipt, and she submitted it to the board.

In response to attorney Carroll’s recommendation, Board members present at the Oct. 3 meeting voted unanimously to amend the town’s personnel policy to require prior approval from the Selectboard before employees may use town property or equipment.

In her response to the personnel policy changes, Cristelli said, “[the Selectboard had] better do a much better internal job” enforcing that policy, noting that other town employees and elected officials use town property and equipment for personal use.

Cristelli also pointed out how many personal items town employees bring to work to enable them to do their jobs.

“I want to be paid for using my own laptop during elections. I need one to communicate with the Secretary of State’s office. My desk, my chair, my lamps, my computer stand are mine,” she said.

She described the conflict as “petty.”

No evidence of ballot mishandling

In reference to the resident complaint about a ballot, Carroll recommended the Selectboard work with the Board of Civil Authority to ensure proper voting instructions and procedures, including having voters place their own ballots in the ballot box.

And Cristelli said the ballot in question wasn’t cast at the Aug. 9 elections, but belonged to an early voter.

“Early ballots are opened at the elections by sworn officials. Those are then put in the ballot box,” Cristelli said, noting that early and absentee ballots go into the locked vault at night.

“If this voter had a true concern,” she said, “the legal process is to go to the Secretary of State.”

Plus, she added, “If I was really interfering with the ballots, would I have let the bond vote fail?”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #380 (Wednesday, October 26, 2016). This story appeared on page D1.

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