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Mt. Abe board censures member for speaking out

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By CHELSEY PLETTS
BRISTOL — At a tense Tuesday night meeting, the Mount Abraham Union High School board publicly censured member Dick Merrill for adding “fuel to the rumor mill” with a series of actions that Chairman Lanny Smith said undermined the board’s credibility.

Those actions included writing numerous letters to the Addison Independent about a potential financial scandal involving the school board, a situation currently under investigation by the Vermont State Police. Tuesday’s censure was made publicly, Smith said, because Merrill walked out on a private censure discussion in May.

Merrill has been an outspoken opponent of the school board, especially in its handling of the school’s finances. He said he contacted the state auditor’s office last August to request an investigation of the school’s financial bookkeeping, but he received no audit information until almost a year later.

In one letter dated October of last year, Merrill wrote, “Just like AIG and Fannie Mae if MAUHS fails due to a lack of oversight the public will not find out until it is too late.”

While the investigation is under way, Smith said he has been advised not to disclose any information about the probe. Smith said he regrets how long the investigation is taking.

The letter of censure, read by Smith on Tuesday, states that it is not up to the board to step in and act as “investigators, judges and jurors,” and that Merrill’s “continual harassment is serving as a distraction and irritant.”

Merrill said, however, that nothing he has done breaches the confidentiality of the board’s actions.

“I agree about confidentiality. I do not feel that I have broken confidentiality. It appears that I am just creating an irritation to someone but that’s not a cause for a censure. I’m very disappointed the board has chosen to limit my ability to defend myself,” he said.

In May, Merrill said the board went into executive session under the intention of speaking solely about vacation pay, but one board member proceeded to discuss the letters Merrill had sent to the newspaper, which Merrill claimed none of the other members objected to as an improper discussion.

This action, Merrill said, breached the rules of an executive session, and therefore the board took part in an illegal meeting. Merrill then left the executive session.

Board minutes, however, reflect that they went into executive session to discuss personnel issues.

In light of the failed censure discussion in May, Smith on Tuesday asked the board to vote on another executive session whereby the censure would be formally discussed. Merrill requested that his lawyer, Willem Jewett, be allowed to speak for him. He was denied under board policy and the advice of the board attorney, because, Smith said, the censure was a board action, not a civil action. The board also voted against allowing Merrill’s attorney to speak before executive session for similar reasons.

Following an executive session from which shouting could be heard, the board Tuesday moved to put Merrill’s censure on the record for, as the board statement read, his “inappropriate actions and (his) breach of (his) duty as a board member.”

In other board business, the school board:

• Accepted a wood chip bid for the Mount Abe heating plant from Claire Lathrop Band Mill Inc. at $42 per ton.

• Approved transportation contracts for Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center students with a 2.9 percent increase at $28,527.17 for 2009-2010.

• Approved a request to allow the use of the Mount Abraham grounds by the Bristol Fourth of July Committee.

• Approved the member-to-member agreement for boys’ ice hockey.

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