Guilford gets a new 5-member Planning Commission

The Selectboard has rebuilt a municipal body that it dismantled suddenly last fall — but questions remain about the process

GUILFORD — And just like that, the town has a new Planning Commission.

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

The board appointed 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, having selected the final candidates using criteria and a process that were never defined in public meetings.

The Selectboard entered executive session before voting in open session to appoint the newly reconstituted board, which is scheduled to meet on Wednesday, Jan. 19 at 6:30 p.m.

“We hope that our community will be accepting of this slate and their work and work with them to move the town plan forward,” said Selectboard Chair Richard Wizansky.

Board claims 60 people applied

On Oct. 25, 2021, the Selectboard voted to remove all nine former members of the Planning Commission. 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.

“I have fielded many calls of those being reached out to in Guilford,” said former Planning Commission Chair Michelle Frehsee, among those dismissed in October, after Monday's vote.

“I did not know who would choose to be interviewed by the Selectboard or join the board based on my conversations,” she said.

“I know the Selectboard has the option of creating a new Planning Commission with anywhere from three to nine members,” Frehsee added. “At this moment, I am thankful there are at least five to reinstate the slate, as I care deeply about things moving forward for Guilford.”

“I hope in the future there will be nine to represent all walks of life in Guilford - old and new, farmers and educators, etc. - from all parts of town in order to represent the diversity of our small community,” she continued. “I know a few of those who were appointed and feel they will be an asset to the future work in bringing our town back together and finalizing the town plan.”

During the Monday Zoom meeting, resident Lynn King asked if any of the appointees were farmers. Wizansky answered, “Not to my knowledge.”

He added that resumes for the new members would “be published,” but as of Jan. 11, they were not available, although Town Administrator Peder Rude said that they would be by the end of the week.

Vermont open meeting law allows for appointment of public officials or hiring of employees in executive session, “provided that a public body must make the final hiring or appointment decision, and explain its reasons for the decision, in open meeting,” according to materials from the office of Secretary of State Jim Condos.

Selectboard member Zon Eastes said about 60 applications were submitted to serve on the volunteer town board. Some residents applied after being encouraged by the Selectboard to do so, and others in response to a general appeal for anyone willing to serve.

Candidate interviews began in late November, Eastes said Tuesday, noting the only member appointed to the new Commission from the former one is Eaton.

Many questions remain

While it is entirely within the Selectboard's purview to reduce the number of Commissioners and to appoint them to that board, questions loom.

When Town Administrator Peder Rude was asked to spell the names of the new members and answer several questions, he replied via email, “Unfortunately, I am unable to answer your questions at this time. I have been requested by the Selectboard to refer all questions on the topic of the Planning Commission to them.

“I have copied both Richard Wizansky, our Chair, and Zon Eastes, one of the members who co-chaired the committee working on this. I cannot include the other Selectboard member who co-chaired the committee with Zon as the email discussion would then violate VT Open Meeting Law. However, I am sure that either Richard or Zon would be happy to respond to your questions.”

Subsequently, Eastes did answer some questions - including confirming the spelling of the new board members' names - but many others remain.

It appears the following actions were taken:

• At what meeting was it decided to whittle the board from nine members to five?

• At what meeting was the field of 60 applicants whittled to the final five?

• At what meeting was it determined that one Selectboard member, Eastes, would interview the candidates?

• At what meeting were the interview questions determined?

• At what meeting were the terms for each of the five new members determined, and what was that process?

There is no indication in any minutes available since the prior board was disbanded that any of these actions were approved at posted meetings.

Answers to these questions were not forthcoming by press time.

Rude wrote on the evening of Jan. 11 that “the Selectboard is not ready to comprehensively answer all your questions tonight.”

“The Selectboard would be happy, in the next couple of days, to answer your questions factually and will demonstrate the Selectboard's transparency throughout this process,” the town administrator continued.

“Additionally, the Selectboard is preparing a press release that describes the process of selecting all the new commissioners and includes their names and resumes,” he wrote.

Waiting for answers

It remains unclear why the Selectboard did not conduct the entire process of appointing a five-member municipal board in open session.

“The steps by the town of Guilford to avoid public transparency are troubling to the Vermont Press Association, which the state Legislature uses to help draft laws on open meetings and public records,” said Mike Donoghue, executive director of the Vermont Press Association, which represents 10 daily newspapers and three dozen non-daily newspapers, including The Commons.

“It is probably more concerning to most, if not all, Guilford taxpayers that somehow the town took several governmental steps in recent weeks and months without apparently having the actions clearly warned and approved at public meetings,” said Donoghue, a longtime public records watchdog and advocate for sunshine laws and media access to government.

“Why would Guilford town officials be opposed to transparency? Why would they refuse to allow their neighbors to hear the answers of the 60 taxpayers that volunteered to fill local government offices that are going to help shape the future of the town?” he asked.