Selectboard sticks to the script

Despite a Zoom audience of 50, board doesn’t budge on having let the entire 9-member Planning Commission go with a form letter

GUILFORD — Selectboard members did not back down from their Oct. 25 decision to “reconstitute” the entire Planning Commission just after former commissioners finished the town plan, despite an audience via Zoom of about 50 on Monday, Nov. 22, many of whom questioned the action.

Selectboard Chair Richard Wizansky started the “Planning Commission update” portion of the meeting by “sincerely thanking” the now-former commission members for the work they did to develop and approve a new town plan. He also acknowledged the “stress in the community” their action “may have caused.”

“We knew our action may have consequences,” he said, adding that Selectboard members continue to believe, however, that the action to dismiss the board in one fell swoop was the correct one.

Before the meeting, Wizansky had said publicly that his board would address questions and were “drafting a response” to former Planning Commissioner Michelle Frehsee following the firing.

However, at the Nov. 22 meeting, he reiterated the reasons already given for the action: that the town plan, which is the responsibility of the Planning Commission, was late; that the Selectboard “observed” - presumably through board liaison Zon Eastes - an “inability to work toward consensus” among commissioners; and that “tension” had, essentially, thwarted progress to complete the plan, as had the fact that not all commissioners use email.

Wizansky did acknowledge that the board had entered the Oct. 25 executive session without a roll call vote, which The Commons had pointed out [“Guilford Selectboard fires entire Planning Commission,” News, Nov. 17].

“That was a mistake,” he said. “However, we are lucky that open meeting law recognizes that boards occasionally make mistakes.”

He went on to say that legal counsel had advised that the board could take that roll call vote retroactively and apply it to the Oct. 24 meeting, which it did on Nov. 22.

Eastes then described the Selectboard's take on the timeline to complete the new town plan, which was set to expire in June 2020. He acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic caused problems and that Gov. Phil Scott had order of stay, providing extra time for such things to be completed and a 90-day grace period after the order was lifted, which was in June 2021.

The grace period would have lasted until Sept. 15 of this year. The Planning Commission voted to approve the proposed plan on Oct. 15.

Eastes said a new commission will be appointed in December. The Selectboard is currently taking names of those interested in serving and pointed out that former commissioners can apply. Applications are due by Nov. 24.

He said the Selectboard will look at “a set of values” that include respect for all citizens, diverse representation, a balance of voices, and an atmosphere of trust when seating a new board of three to nine commissioners.

Eastes estimated with a first meeting in January, the Planning Commission could then host a public informational forum about the plan in February, finalize it, and submit it to the Selectboard, which would then host a second forum to discuss the document in March or April.

If that timeline holds, Eastes said the board could adopt the plan between March and May of 2022. It would then be submitted to the Windham Regional Commission for final approval.

Selectboard Vice Chair Verandah Porche noted the board “is not criticizing the content or quality of the proposed plan,” noting all who had served were volunteers. She also said the action was not taken lightly.

“This is not about exercising power,” Porche said. “The issue is in no way personal.”

'Booted in the butt'

“It was a real deep wound,” said former Planning Commissioner Jackie Gaines, saying the Selectboard's action was “extremely disrespectful” and made her feel like she was being “booted in the butt.”

“I'm confused [...] I do feel strongly our board was attacked because of misunderstanding. I'm feeling as though there's a lack of communication that the board received, and I believe our chair was doing the best she could.”

She went on to tell Eastes that it is “really difficult for a regular layperson to even follow what you said.”

While Wizansky characterized “observed” dissent, Gaines explained the former board's process differently, saying that it was human nature when working out difficult matters to not always agree out of the gate.

“We worked so hard on every sentence,” she said, calling what might appear argumentative “our colorful discussion.”

“It took a lot of time, and we had a lot of discussion,” she said. “Some of us are not technologically superstars,”

Wizansky had given any speaker a three-minute limit and many speakers ceded their time to Frehsee and Gaines.

“We are passionate about this town, we love this town,” Gaines said before her speaking time was again terminated. “We all did the best we could. We're not as polished as what I'm seeing in this meeting. We actually love each other.”

Frehsee took issue, as she had at the last Selectboard meeting, with the board's take on things and its timeline explanation.

“We were one week from sending this out,” she said. “It would have been adopted before the end of the year. Yes, it wasn't done by Sept. 15, but there were reasons. It was steadfast, we worked through it, and we made things better in the town plan. Period.”

“This whole January 2020 thing?” she said. “Never. Listening to everything you read, Richard, I know it was well prepared. Covid was a piece, but we had worked really solidly together as a board. We were a little bit late, but it did not warrant this action by the town.”

Former Selectboard member Anne Rider said she was concerned on three fronts: about why the action was taken, why the board did so just as the Planning Commission had finally been able to finish the plan, and how the firing was done.

As described by Ryder, commissioners received a letter without the signatures of Selectboard members or the names of the individual commissioners to whom it was sent via certified mail without its having ever being read into the public record. Nor were the former Planning Commission members thanked in the letter, Rider said.

“I agree with Jackie it was a very wounding action,” she said, adding that she thinks there needs to be a way found to “move forward and find a way to heal as a town,” but that the board's action has made that difficult.

Frehsee, saying that she had planned to step down due to a perceived conflict of interest, said she had been willing to help with a smooth transition of knowledge, but that now “my heart in this is out.”

“This has been wrong, damaging, it doesn't feel good to anyone,” she said, adding she has fielded more than 40 phone calls in the past week. “You could have talked to us before disbanding us. You could have disbanded us after the plan was approved.”

Frehsee also questioned whose names would be recorded as having drafted the plan, which Eastes said is the one a new commission will bring to a public forum.

“We put six years on this,” she said. “No one's going to be able to hold the forum and stand behind the words in that plan except us.”

Former Commissioner Tanya Balsley also questioned how Selectboard members could extinguish the Planning Commission without ever inviting its members to address concerns, calling it “a terrible breach of trust.”

“It was not considered because it was not required and it was not part of the discussion,” Eastes said.

Wizansky drew the meeting to a close after less than an hour, calling the discussion “rousing.”

“We really appreciate this input, certainly, about the town plan,” he said.

As the meeting was being adjourned, resident Kelly Frost wrote in the chat portion of the Zoom, where everyone can see the message:

“The Selectboard demonstrated that they are capable of admitting error at the beginning of this meeting,” she wrote, referencing the roll call vote. “I urge the Selectboard to revisit both how and what they did to the Planning Commission and revisit their earlier decision.”

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