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Details of board shakeup end with ‘no further comment’

Questions linger over process and timeline of new Planning Commission appointments

GUILFORD—After inquiries from The Commons about process and potential open meeting law violations during its appointment of a new, five-member Planning Commission on Jan. 10, the Selectboard responded to some of those questions.

After declining to respond by press time on Tuesday, Jan. 11, the board sent an email on Friday, Jan. 14 with a “timeline” of events.

The correspondence followed a Thursday, Jan. 13 special meeting and executive session for “confidential attorney-client communications for the purpose of providing legal services to the body.”

Upon exiting that closed-door session, the board answered one question — “At what meeting was a ‘subcommittee’ appointed to interview candidates for the Planning Commission?” — and voted “to rectify a mistake and retroactively appoint Verandah Porche and Zon [Eastes] to be a subcommittee to oversee the transition of the Planning Commission.”

In their timeline, the board asserts that interviews for the newly reconstituted Planning Commission took place in November and December.

Out with the old, in with the new

At its Jan. 10 meeting, the Selectboard reorganized the town Planning Commission, announcing it had decided to reduce the body from nine members to five, for at least the time being.

The board voted to appoint Michael Szostak to a one-year term, Jethro Eaton and Charles Light to two-year terms, and Julie Howland and Jeannette Tokarz to three-year terms.

Meeting minutes for Jan. 10 and 13 were not available until Monday, Jan. 17. They reflect the motion to reduce the number of commissioners from nine to five but no prior discussion as to the number.

The minutes also reflect an executive session “to appoint a public official” and the subsequent vote to appoint the five and their terms but — as with other parts of the process — nowhere is a public discussion evident of how those five were chosen or how terms were chosen.

On Oct. 25, 2021, the Selectboard voted to remove all nine members of the Planning Commission without warning to them or discussion with them. While some had indicated they might be stepping down, at issue was the timeliness of the town plan and difference of opinion as to its accomplishment.

The Commons has also asked to see the list of some 60 applicants the Selectboard said applied or were asked to be appointed to the Commission. Board members said the list had been determined from October 2021 to January 2022.

No list has been forthcoming.

“Some were applicants, others were individuals recommended by the community,” the board states in the email to The Commons. “Following the interview process, the final slate was presented by the Selectboard subcommittee, with reports to full SB in executive session.”

But when and how these interviews were conducted is unclear in the public record.

New appointee Michael Szostak told The Commons that he was approached by two Selectboard members he knows and asked to serve.

He initially declined the offer, primarily “because of the questions I still had about the way the former commissioners were dismissed.”

He was then asked by the same board members to reconsider and spoke to two more community leaders whom he holds in high regard.

“They encouraged me to accept the nomination, although they, too, were bothered by how the former Commissioners were dismissed,” Szosktak said. “As a committed community member and recognizing the importance of having a plan completed, I decided to accept.”

“However, I did so while expressing my concern about the process used to dismiss the former commissioners and asked the Selectboard to reassess their process,” he added.

“My nomination was then submitted to the Selectboard for approval, but I have no idea how that approval process actually worked,” said Szostak, adding he has “no knowledge of the process used with the other nominees.”

Asked to explain that, no answer was forthcoming from the Selectboard by press time. Although the Jan. 17 email says, “reports and recommendations were made in both public meetings and in executive session,” minutes do not reflect any discussion with candidates prior to the Jan. 10 appointments in public session.

Finally, having been told there was no meeting on Jan. 11, The Commons sent one more email on Tuesday, Jan. 18 to Town Administrator Peder Rude noting the request stemmed from an item on the timeline sent by the Selectboard to the newspaper on Friday, Jan. 14: “01.11.22 — Selectboard begins creating and editing press release” and asking about the posting for that meeting and the location of those meeting minutes.

The response from Rude on behalf of the board was, “The Guilford Selectboard has no further comment on this topic.”

Who’s serving

On Tuesday, Jan. 18, The Commons received a press release from the Selectboard noting short biographies of the five chosen to serve on the newly incarnated Planning Commission.

They are:

• Jethro Eaton: A carpenter, he moved with his family to Guilford in 2015. He operates a building business with his wife, Jaime Durham. Eaton has served on the Guilford Planning Commission since 2016; he is the only one of the former members who was appointed to the commission after all were dismissed en masse. “I look forward to continuing my civic duty and helping my community,” Eaton said.

• Julie Holland: A licensed physical therapist assistant, she became a full-time resident in 2013 with her husband and child. She works as a home-care assistant for a private client and a company called Care in Vermont.

“I have volunteered in Guilford at the Broad Brook Community Center, helping with brunches, acting, and stage-managing plays, and for the Guilford Fair parking cars,” Holland said. “I look forward to serving the town. It’s an honor.”

• Charles Light: An independent film/video producer and distributor, he has lived in Guilford since 2005, having maintained close friendships with Guilford residents for over 50 years.

“I have worked with groups of people in social and civic endeavors, including substantial time in communal living situations, the legal committee of the Clamshell Alliance, the founding and fundraising committee for the Shea Theatre in Turners Falls, Mass., and present board member of a Queens, N.Y, co-op,” Light said.

• Michael Szostak: Founder and director of the restorative justice program at Brattleboro Union High School, he moved to Guilford 22 years ago.

“With my 30 years of experience in corporate America prior to moving to Vermont, I have developed a broad range of management, technical, and human resources skills that I hope will benefit the Planning Commission and provide a broad perspective in further enhancing our unique and exceptional community,” he said.

• Jeannette Tokarz: A practicing primary care pediatrician, she moved to Guilford in 2016. “Over time I’ve come to realize how fortunate I am to be a part of this community. Through my participation in the Grange, the Library Board of Trustees, and the [Democratic Town] Committee I’ve met many dedicated and passionately engaged residents who populate our town. I have always worked with diverse families who bring their own viewpoints to a visit,” she said.

One of the new Planning Commission’s immediate tasks will be to shepherd this draft plan to adoption by the Selectboard, the memo says.

“The Commission can then move on with the important work of its charge, including researching and engaging with residents to craft the next Town Plan,” Selectboard Chair Richard Wizansky said.

The press release notes, “The process to secure Planning Commission members was guided by a set of values held by the Selectboard: respect for all Guilford residents; as diverse a representation as possible, including age, gender, livelihood; balance of voices, supporting openness and fairness for all; and trust in consensus and community building.”

The draft Town Plan, which presents a unified vision on an array of community issues, was built by the previous Planning Commission with assistance from the Conservation Commission.

Following adoption and completion of the 2022 Town Plan, the Commission will consider a range of tasks toward development of the next Town Plan, due for adoption in 2030.

The Planning Commission meets at 6:30 p.m. on the third Monday of each month. All meetings are open to the public and conducted virtually and in-person at the town office.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #647 (Wednesday, January 19, 2022). This story appeared on page A1.

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