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Citizens and government clash in Goshen

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November 15, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

GOSHEN — The tension was palpable at the Goshen selectboard meeting Monday night. With a new chairman, Bruce Webster, at the helm, some two dozen residents clashed over the town government’s spending policies. 

The tiny mountain town in the past few months has seen the resignation of several key town officials — including the departure of Town Clerk Erica Sabatini, announced Monday — and is struggling with paying for services with a small tax base.

At the center of the discussion was road foreman Jim Hayes, who at the end of October purchased a $3,000 sander to replace the town’s older, malfunctioning one. According to Hayes, Selectmen David McKinnon and David Gale authorized this purchase at a board meeting in August.

McKinnon and Gale confirmed this, but Webster, who was not on the board at the time — he was appointed to replace Thomasina Magoon when she resigned at the end of September — said he could not find a record of the authorization in the minutes. Sabatini was absent from that meeting and so there were no minutes.

When Webster consulted the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, they told him the sander should not have been purchased without written authorization.

“They said, first of all, if it wasn’t in the minutes, it’s not verifiable, it didn’t happen,” Webster said.

McKinnon and Gale maintained they had advised Hayes to use his discretion, to buy the sander if he deemed it necessary. After all, he has been taking care of the Goshen roads for 11 years, and he has always been frugal, they said.

“We’ve done this three or four sanders before this one,” Gale said. “It’s the way we’ve always done business.”

But Webster said he wants to change the way Goshen does business.

“There are no written policies and procedures in town,” he said in an interview after the meeting. “It seems as if the town road crew has been operating for quite a while with little or no accountability in place.”

Tony Clark, who runs Blueberry Hill Inn, voiced concern at the meeting that the town was being lackadaisical with oversight of the taxpayers’ money.

“I think it’s time you look at this town as a business, because you’re bleeding us, and taxes are not going to go down,” he said.

According to Gale, the issue at hand runs more deeply than the sander dispute.

“We’re facing the problems of a small town in the modern world,” he said, in an interview on Tuesday. “There’s always that tradeoff between not having enough money and not having enough time.”

The town cannot afford to pay a fulltime road crew, and Hayes cannot afford to give all his time to the town, Gale said.

Goshen doesn’t have a lot of taxable property because more than half the town is National Forest. And with only 260 residents, many of them seasonal, it can be difficult to find people willing to give their time to town government.

None of the town employees work full-time, and all earn less than $10 an hour for the work they do. The jobs have grown more time-consuming — requiring more paperwork and bureaucracy — in recent years, said Gale, who has served on the board for a quarter century.

“These people need to make money, they need to have a job,” he said.

When Hayes isn’t working for the town, he works for himself. He owns a contracting business, which is twice as profitable as his work for the town, said Gale. Still, he is reasonable with the town, using much of his own equipment and tools.

“No one else in town could do that,” Gale said.

Balancing a full-time job with town government has been difficult for many of Goshen’s employees.

Magoon resigned from her position as selectboard chair at the end of September. Between her two young children and a full-time job with Vermont Magazine, she wasn’t able to give selectboard business the time it needed, she said.

Earlier this fall, town treasurer Kevin O’Classen put in his own letter of resignation, citing similar time constraints, though he will stay on until July. 

Town Clerk Erica Sabatini near the end of Monday’s meeting announced she, too, planned to resign, for personal and financial reasons. She said she will remain in office until she has fulfilled her obligations for the upcoming budget season.

Sabatini has been clerk for three and a half years, balancing that job with the work she does for her husband’s landscaping business. At $9 an hour, four hours a week, her town clerk position just isn’t financially viable, she said.

Her personal reason, she said in an interview after the meeting, “is that I do not feel comfortable working with our selectboard chair.”

Sabatini’s assistant, Diane Mott, announced at the meeting that she would resign as well if Sabatini left her position.

“I can’t do this job by myself,” she said.

At the upcoming selectboard meeting on Nov. 26, next year’s budget will take top billing. Webster hopes to address the issue of whether or not the town can afford to raise its employees’ pay, as well as make a plan for the town’s roads and buildings.

Still, many residents are wary of the tensions rising among the selectmen.

“I’ve been fortunate in that up until now, the selectboard has been reasonably in agreement, it hasn’t been divided,” Gale said. “I think we’re in for a fairly rough period here.”

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