GUILFORD—Nine members of the Planning Commission have been removed in one fell swoop by the Selectboard, causing a tsunami of questions that many are looking to be answered when the board next meets.
“I’ve lived in town for 52 years, and it was a very hard decision for me and the Selectboard,” Selectboard Chair Richard Wizansky told The Commons this week. “But we believe it is the best action we could have taken for our town.”
It started on Oct. 25, when the board entered executive session to “discuss a personnel matter” — without a roll call vote to do so, a potential Open Meeting Law violation.
Immediately upon exiting the closed-door session and re-entering the public portion of that meeting, Wizansky moved to “remove all members of the current Planning Commission,” which the board voted unanimously to do — circumstances that make the vote unambiguously legal.
The decision complicates progress on the town plan, which was days away from being distributed to other towns as part of the process of completing the document process.
According to “The Municipal Plan,” the state planning manual published by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development’s Department of Housing and Community Development, a town plan “provides a framework toward attaining community aspirations through public investments, land use regulations, and other implementation programs such as a state-designated downtown or village center, business improvement districts, or land conservation programs.”
A town plan “can also qualify the community for state grants to fund improvements or receive specialized technical assistance,” the guide said, noting that such plans can be used as “a long-term guide [...] to measure and evaluate public and private initiatives that affect the future physical, social, and economic health of the community,” as a “basis for decision-making, community programs, and taxpayer investments,” as an “action plan that identifies implementation steps,” as a “basis for municipal regulations,” and as a simple reference for town information.
Wizansky and former Planning Commission Chair Michelle Frehsee also differ markedly in their characterizations of the commission’s productivity over the past months as members worked to create the town plan, undergoing a process that the state guidebook, published in 2017, described as “daunting” even in years prior to the pandemic.
The action is also complicated by Frehsee’s acknowledgement to the Selectboard in September that five of the members, including her, had been planning to step down.
Swift action stuns many
Following the vote, Wizansky made a short statement, noting that the Commission is responsible for the plan he says was due for the Selectboard’s review in January 2020.
It was not approved by the commission until this October.
Wizansky continued with his remarks, intimating that Commission meetings were held only “when a quorum could be raised” and that Frehsee had cited an inability to work to consensus within the Commission, resulting in a “substantial amount of tension.”
He went on to say that communication within the Commission had been difficult, noting some members have no email, and said “that’s not been addressed.”
He ended by citing state law governing municipal and regional planning and development, which says that “any member of the [Planning Commission] may be removed at any time by unanimous vote of the legislative body.”
“I think that’s an important development in our town’s future,” Wizansky said post-vote.
Then, Selectboard member Zon Eastes moved to refer “all important questions, persistent questions, perhaps meaty questions” to the chair, and the board unanimously agreed.
Planning Commission chair disagrees
Frehsee, who has served as chair for eight years, said by phone following the vote that Wizansky, in his public statement accompanying the vote, “put words in my mouth.”
“The disbanding of the Planning Commission was ill-timed and ill-informed,” she told The Commons. “The Selectboard, I don’t think, understood the process of how town plans are passed.”
Frehsee met with Selectboard members Sept. 27 to discuss where the commission was in the process of delivering the town plan and acknowledged that they were late, but for reasons that were legitimate.
She told them that the Planning Commission was never supposed to hand over the plan in January 2020 and that throughout the process of drafting it, the commission has been working with the Windham Regional Commission to be sure to stay on schedule.
Frehsee says the Planning Commission was on course to meet a deadline of June 23, 2020 when Covid closed down everything that March.
The commission “took a break at that point,” she says, and resumed meetings that November, “knowing we had 90 days after the state of emergency was lifted.” That happened June 14.
“A lot has happened in the past year — a lot of land use and natural resource things needed to be updated because we have no zoning. We needed updated maps and clear language because that’s all we have to stand on in Guilford,” she told The Commons. “Every single member of my board would tell you I call them almost weekly and explain everything.”
She added that even when commission members haven’t agreed out of the gate, they’ve always worked together.
At the Sept. 27 meeting, Frehsee told Selectboard members that she expected the town plan to be finalized within the week. She explained that once finalized, the plan must be sent to surrounding towns within a 30-day review period and then returned to the Selectboard and presented at a public forum.
“Everyone’s just ready to get this done and move it forward,” said Frehsee, who also led the commission to develop the 2006 town plan. “Other things can be adopted as needed in the future.”
She went on to tell the board that the commission was “fully there.”
“We just have the land use section, which is one of the biggest pieces for us, especially because of everything with Paul Belogour. The Conservation Commission did a huge amount of work and revised it and it’s been available for people to pick up in the town office,” she said. “I think the new version will suit the town well.”
Since moving to Guilford from Massachusetts, Belogour, 50, a Belarus native, has been busy buying acreage, buildings, and businesses, including a marina in Hinsdale, N.H., and The Outlet Center in Brattleboro. Earlier this year, he also bought the Brattleboro Reformer, the Bennington Banner, the Manchester Journal, and UpCountry magazine from New England Newspapers, Inc.
Asked after the meeting what she meant, Frehsee said, “Belogour is now the largest landowner in Guilford, and the Planning Commission thought we should simply take a look at the land use section. It doesn’t mean we changed anything. Since there is no zoning in Guilford, we want to be sure we are clearly enunciating the use of properties.”
At the Sept. 27 meeting, Frehsee said she believed that five people would be stepping down from her board, including herself. She planned do so, she said, because she perceives a “conflict of interest” since she is now serving on the board of directors of Vermont Independent Media, which publishes The Commons.
Wizansky told her the Selectboard had already been thinking about “the composition of the Planning Commission” and “collecting names” to then interview potential members.
Frehsee, saying she wanted to see the town plan through to fruition, noted that she became chair in the first place because she wanted “people to have a voice.”
“It is a bit hard for me to step down, but this is a greater role for me at The Commons,” she said, adding she hoped those seated at the Planning Commission table would be “balanced,” with both new and longer-time residents in the mix.
“We will certainly be seeking diversity both in terms of age and experience in the town [and] city folks as well as farmers,” Wizansky assured her.
But that was not the end of it.
No comment on Frehsee letter disputing Wizansky account
At the Nov. 8 Selectboard meeting, Wizansky read a letter from Frehsee into the record, as she had requested.
“The Planning Commission has worked diligently on creating the town plan through the last six years,” she wrote. “The decision to release all the board was ill timed. Members of the Selectboard knew we were one week away from sending the plan out to the adjoining towns to further the process towards a town forum, which is required to pass the town plan.”
Frehsee described “the lack of understanding of the process” as “concerning.”
“We must have a functioning Planning Commission to present the plan, and they need to be present at the town forum to answer any questions of what/why/how each part of the document was created,” she continued. “Now this is not possible, and the town will be starting over.”
Frehsee went on to say that Wizansky’s statements at the Oct. 25 meeting were inaccurate and “concerning” and that the Selectboard had never brought any of the things he stated as reasons for canning the commission to her or the group as a whole.
She added that the Planning Commission has met regularly, with nine meetings this year.
At that moment willing to “help pull things back together if given the opportunity” to finish the plan, Frehsee said she would need four other members to also be willing to do so, despite having been dismissed by the Selectboard.
After reading the letter, Wizansky immediately went on to another topic, which was discussed at some length.
That’s when Anne Ryder, former Selectboard member and chair, attending via Zoom, spoke up, noting that the board made no comment about Frehsee’s letter.
“As a member of the public, I feel this warrants more of a discussion,” Ryder said. “I would like to hear and understand the Selectboard response. The timing of the letter coming out when the town plan was finally, finally, finally finished kind of stunned me.”
Frehsee, also attending on Zoom, also spoke, saying the Commission dismissal was “a complete detriment to the town” and that some of her colleagues no longer wanted to give their time to the effort, given the Selectboard’s action, comments, and non-response.
“The lack of understanding is infuriating,” she said. “What you’re doing right now is really bad for Guilford.”
“I’ve been doing this eight years — longer than any of you have been sitting at that table,” Frehsee said. “For you guys to not understand all that process and hard work. . .it deserved a much quicker response.”
Response promised at next meeting
Wizansky ended that discussion saying the Selectboard is in touch with the Windham Regional Commission and “working on” a response to Frehsee’s letter for the Monday meeting.
Asked on Nov. 16 how he determined that the points he mentioned were true, Wizansky told The Commons, “We have heard this from a number of people in town, including our liaison to the Planning Commission,” Selectboard member Zon Eastes.
Told of the lack of a roll call vote prior to the board entering executive session at the Oct. 25 meeting prior to the dismissal, Wizansky was surprised and said he’d have to review the videotape.
“My habit has been since Covid to roll call votes,” he said. “I’ll have to look. It would be peculiar if I didn’t.”
In addition to Frehsee, the other members of the Planning Commission have included Tanya Balsley, Chuck Clark, Jethro Eaton (vice chair), Harry Evans, Jackie Gaines, Lynn King, Nathaniel Matthiesen, and Thayer Tomlinson (secretary).