BRISTOL — Katie Raycroft-Meyer’s seat on the planning commission is safe for now.
The Bristol selectboard on Monday decided to keep Raycroft-Meyer on the commission following a vote two weeks earlier that put her seat in jeopardy. After speaking with her and a dozen citizens on Monday, Selectboard Chair Peeker Heffernan, selectwoman Carol Wells and selectman Joel Bouvier made this decision with just enough board members to hold a quorum.
At the selectboard’s last meeting, on May 21, the board said it learned in executive session that Raycroft-Meyer was possibly a party to the contentious litigation over Jim Lathrop’s proposed gravel extraction pit. The board voted unanimously to remove Raycroft-Meyer from the town’s planning commission if court documentation supported the allegation, which Raycroft-Meyer has consistently and adamantly denied.
Under Vermont Statute Title 24, Section 4323, the selectboard has the power to remove any planning commissioner at any time and for any reason by a unanimous vote. No public hearings or processes are required.
According to Heffernan, the Bristol selectboard has long abided by an unwritten policy to not appoint individuals to board positions if they are in litigation involving the town. This rule holds especially true for the Lathrop case, said Town Administrator Bill Bryant at the Monday selectboard meeting, because the issue has divided the town of Bristol for almost a decade.
Bryant did unearth court documentation that showed Raycroft-Meyer was a litigant in the case, but the quality of that documentation became the subject of close scrutiny.
Raycroft-Meyer maintained that she was never involved in the case and never paid a lawyer despite the fact that Bristol attorney Andrew Jackson had submitted documentation to legal bodies on at least two occasions indicating that he was representing her.
According to accounts provided by Bryant, the selectboard, Raycroft-Meyer and court documents, this is what happened and this is how the situation has so far resolved itself:
On May 14, the selectboard held a public hearing on the town plan draft. Before the meeting began, Jodi Lathrop — Jim Lathrop’s daughter-in-law — told Bryant that Jim was upset because Raycroft-Meyer was appointed to the planning commission. Raycroft-Meyer’s name came up in the environmental court proceedings, which are currently under way, as a litigant opposing Lathrop’s gravel extraction operation.
Jodi asked if Jim could be put on the agenda for the selectboard’s next meeting on May 21. The agenda had already been prepared, but Bryant said that Jim could raise his concerns during public forum, as all citizens have this right. That same night, Bryant e-mailed the town’s attorney, Joseph McLane, to find out if Raycroft-Meyer was involved in the case.
McLane asked attorneys Jim Dumont and Andy Jackson — who are representing the opposition to the extraction operation — if Raycroft-Meyer was involved in the case. Jackson, who is also representing himself in the case, didn’t respond. But Dumont did, indicating that Raycroft-Meyer was listed as one of Jackson’s clients.
After learning about this issue in executive session, the selectboard at its May 21 meeting unanimously resolved to remove Raycroft-Meyer upon the receipt of court documentation. Bryant received the necessary court documentation, which indicated Jackson was representing Raycroft-Meyer.
“The following day, I called Katie to make sure she knew about it before anybody else did,” said Bryant at Monday’s meeting.
The court documentation Bryant received traced back to Raycroft-Meyer’s signature — along with those of 22 others, including current planner John Elder — on a manila envelope.
In early February of 2004, Raycroft-Meyer and the others signed the envelope at one of the first public hearings on the Lathrop proposal — before the ZBA first approved the project, before the project was then appealed and before the years of litigation began.
Raycroft-Meyer maintains that she signed the envelope, making her an “interested party,” because she was simply interested in the issue.
“I signed the back of an envelope indicating that I wanted to stay involved and informed on this important planning issue,” she told the selectboard on Monday. “This is the only time I signed anything pertaining to this issue. Since that time, I’ve stayed informed on the issue, but I have not been actively involved. I’ve never attended (litigation), received any correspondence regarding my involvement, or contributed any funds to any groups involved or paid an attorney.”
Bryant said, “There’s nothing on the envelope that says what they’re signing up for. It’s just an envelope with signatures on it and on the front it says ‘Bristol Gravel Pit.’”
But inside was a piece of loose-leaf paper with a hand-written message scribbled across the top.
“We hereby petition under 24 V.S.A. § 4464 to be an interested party(ies) in the Lathrop pit matter,” reads the message. Below the message are names, which include Raycroft-Meyer’s, but no signatures. When Dumont and Jackson, representing different clients, appealed the ZBA’s initial decision to permit the Lathrop pit, Jackson used this petition to signify his clients — thus indicating that he was representing Raycroft-Meyer.
Bryant explained the process.
“There’s a part of this statute that allows any … citizens in the community … to become an interested party as a group without actually documenting a particular property interest in the litigation,” he said. “Andrew Jackson submitted that list to the court in 2004.”
In 2005, Raycroft-Meyer learned that Jackson was using her name in litigation without having consulted her. She was working on Bristol’s downtown designation application when the town received a complaint that Raycroft-Meyer “was suing the town,” as she put it.
“At that point, I discovered my name had been used in some capacity with the Lathrop hearings,” she said. “I asked Andy Jackson to remove my name from that documentation. I assumed at that time that he had honored my request.”
But, as court documents reveal, Jackson indicated in a December 2010 letter to the Vermont Environmental Court that he was still representing Raycroft-Meyer, which caused the Bristol selectboard further confusion.
To clear up the issue, Jackson wrote two letters to the Bristol selectboard: one dated May 22 and another May 31.
“Katie has had no input to any ongoing dispute regarding the Lathrop pit,” he wrote in the May 22 letter.
And then on May 31, 2012, he wrote: “Katie did not become aware that she was still involved in this matter until a couple of years ago … Katie advised that she did not realize she was on the list and asked that she be removed from the list. Any listing of her on filings with the court is an inadvertence, and is incorrect.”
After the selectboard discussed the incident in open meeting, Carol Wells made a motion to reconsider Raycroft-Meyer’s legal activity, which effectively keeps her on the planning commission and requires a unanimous vote from the selectboard to remove her.
HANDLING THE ISSUE
Raycroft-Meyer and planning commission member Willow Wheelock made it clear they were unhappy with the way the selectboard handled this incident.
“My initial reaction to this allegation was disbelief, not only because I have never been involved with this litigation, but that I was not consulted regarding the issue or given the opportunity to respond prior to your decision to remove me from the board,” said Raycroft-Meyer at Monday’s meeting.
Wheelock, who spoke at length, told the board that she was very disappointed in their handling of this incident.
“Perhaps you can acknowledge that if you could go back you’d do things differently,” said Wheelock. “You carry a lot of power … and it comes with a lot of responsibility to set a tone. And to me, the way this process was handled very much carries a tone of divisiveness, and that certainly is not what we need to show as leaders of this town, especially when it comes to this issue.”
Wheelock and John Moyers suggested to the board that they make clear policies for dealing with such issues and write them down.
“I think with leadership we need to set some really clear and consistent statements that make it so that folks in the town are not being hand picked and placed … or pulled based on something that’s not really concrete and effective,” added Wheelock.
The board didn’t respond directly to these concerns and suggestions, but Heffernan did explain the way the board handled this issue was not meant to detract from Raycroft-Meyer’s skill-set as a professional planner or her reputation as an ethical citizen.
“This was in no way a personal attack or an attack on your credibility,” he said. “It was purely a move based on information that we received.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at firstname.lastname@example.org.