Moving forward in Vernon
Vernon voters study town reports during the recent Annual Town Meeting, which took place during a contentious time in local government.

Moving forward in Vernon

The ultimate responsibility for effective town government — one that’s open and transparent — belongs to the voters

VERNON — Many people - both residents and those living beyond our borders - believe that the recent change in Selectboard members has given Vernon a new level of openness, freedom, and hope for its people, while greatly improving the environment for a better-functioning town government.

As an elected auditor for the past two years, I have had an inside view of our climate and circumstances and what has taken place within our town government.

During that time, I saw an elevated level of hostility, as some have operated with an attitude of superiority and out-of-bounds authority.

From my view, it became clear that there were personal agendas that superseded the best interest of the town. I could give many examples of how this attitude played out, creating division and discord.

But I want to give my perspective of the recently improved environment in Vernon and focus on how we can move forward.

At present, many residents perceive a very minimal sense of community in town. An essential component in building community is an open, transparent government that respects public trust and allows its citizens to participate freely.

As diverse individuals in a free-government system, we should value and invite individual points of view without favoritism. Everyone should have equal opportunity to have a voice.

To borrow a phrase from the great General George Patton: “When everyone is thinking alike, then someone isn't thinking.”

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If we are to function as an open and free government, we will recognize the importance of the law, to which we are all equally accountable.

Government officials are elected to fulfill various statutory roles which are meant to work together as a team and to collectively serve the best interest of the town. If each role is allowed to function within its statutory duties, the town and its people benefit.

As an elected auditor, my statutory role as part of a three-person board is to serve as a watchdog for the taxpayers of Vernon.

By monitoring town finances, auditing town records and books, and doing similar tasks, we are to provide accountability and report our findings directly to the taxpayers.

In accordance with Vermont statutes, we are independent and protected from interference. To assure that town officials cooperate with our work, state law also provides that “[a]ny town officer who willfully refuses or neglects to submit their books, accounts, records, etc., to the auditors upon request, or to furnish information, shall be ineligible to reelection for the year ensuing and subject to the penalties otherwise prescribed by law.”

There have been two situations in recent years where town officials have ignored auditors' requests for their books, records, and the like. One situation resulted in a 1{1/2}-year investigation by state officials. The town official involved did not run for reelection. The outcome of the other more- recently-reported situation is yet to be determined.

Some within Vernon's past and present government have chosen to blame auditors for exposing the illegal behaviors rather than supporting us in fulfilling our role. They see the open reporting of the wrong actions as personal attacks.

When a town official refuses to submit their books, records, and other information for auditing, they bring consequences upon themselves, as their noncompliance raises suspicions.

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The people of Vernon have an important constitutional role: they are given ultimate authority, and they are to hold their elected officials legally accountable.

In the fall of 2014, several residents publicly acknowledged that the brokenness and dysfunction of their government was a direct result of their lack of participation.

Since then, several have made a commitment to work on finding solutions, taking their constitutional role seriously by participating in their government. The presence and accountability brought by these citizens has not been accepted by those who interpret their participation as a threat to their control.

Freedom is not free. To quote a phrase often attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “When the people fear their government there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

I hope that many more citizens will choose to engage in their town government and exercise their personal freedoms and voice.

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