FERRISBURGH — Addison County’s third-largest town has one two-person race to be decided on March 5 — and the chairwoman of the selectboard is the one facing the challenge.
After 12 years of service, longtime selectboard head Loretta Lawrence is squaring off against a two-time Democratic candidate for the Vermont House of Representatives, Arabella Holzapfel, for a three-year term.
Lawrence, 62, has worked as the Ferrisburgh Central School secretary for the past 31 years and also served on the town’s zoning board of adjustment for seven years.
The 42-year resident of Ferrisburgh said she never really considered not running.
“It’s very rewarding. I love helping people in any way. If it’s serving on local government, I think I can make a difference,” Lawrence said. “You can’t solve all the problems and issues, but you can let people know you want to make a difference and listen to them, just be a good listener and listen to all sides and be fair.”
Holzapfel, 55, moved to Ferrisburgh in 1991 after pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Vermont. Since 1992, she has worked at Middlebury College’s Davis Family Library, where she oversees its online journals and databases. She is now studying mediation and conflict resolution at Champlain College.
She ran unsuccessfully in 2000 and 2012 to represent the Addison-3 House district that includes Ferrisburgh, and said the seeds of her decision to run were sown while meeting residents during her 2012 campaign.
“I became aware of some concerns about how the selectboard operates, and toward the end of the campaign I started going to some of the meetings,” she said. “I felt my experience and skills might be applicable in the situations that come before the selectboard.”
Holzapfel’s concerns about the selectboard appears to be at odds with what Lawrence calls her strengths as a board member. Holzapfel’s interview with the Independent echoed her campaign handout, which states that the selectboard has “little direct communication with those who bring problems forward” and that the board’s “demeanor … is generally not welcoming.”
In an interview, Holzapfel said the board doesn’t listen well.
“It seems like they feel like they don’t want to be bothered by people coming to their meetings and asking questions,” she said.
Holzapfel also said the selectboard tends to pay too little attention to recommendations from other town panels. She cited as an example what she called the board’s slow response to Encore Redevelopment’s recent proposal to pay the town rent and provide power at below-market rates in exchange for being allowed to put a solar array on town-owned land. The town’s energy committee backed that proposal.
“That sort of attitude extends not only to the people who come to meetings,” Holzapfel said, “but also to the commissions and committees who do some of the real work of the town, just (not) welcoming their recommendations.”
But Lawrence listed her listening skills as a plus and said the board remains open to advice.
“I think I use a lot of common sense … I like to listen to all sides, because I learn from listening to everybody,” Lawrence said. “You’ve got to be open-minded.”
She said although the board does not necessarily follow every recommendation citizens or groups make, input has always been welcome.
“We certainly want them to keep coming back and not get turned off,” Lawrence said. “We’re certainly open to (the public) keeping bringing the issues back and talking about it.”
Holzapfel offered an example of what she called the board not listening. She said a group of residents filed a petition asking for an advisory question on the town meeting ballot asking whether Ferrisburgh should aspire to “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” (LEED) standards for new buildings, such as the new town garage now being considered.
Selectmen met in late January and declined to do so, citing a state law that allows them to decline to put “advisory” questions on the ballot. Holzapfel said the law the board used is not intended to include town issues, and the decision thus quashed “a legitimate petition about legitimate town concerns.”
“The petition was asking for a town discussion. Do we focus on upfront costs, or do we focus on long-term costs when we’re building a new building? That was all it was asking,” she said. “I don’t get upset about a lot of things, but stifling democracy is something I get upset about.”
But Lawrence said the garage design has already been part of a public process — a building committee has held regular meetings that any are welcome to attend. And whether or not LEED standards are used, she said energy efficiency would be assured in a design she called “a work in progress.”
“Title 24 says that advisory articles can be put on or not. We feel, particularly to the design of this building, that we will make it as energy-efficient as possible,” she said. “We figured we could make it as energy-efficient as possible, and we didn’t need an advisory vote.”
Holzapfel also cited the Encore situation as an example of the board not being open-minded. The company approached Ferrisburgh in early November with a deal that could net the town close to $500,000 over 20 years, and selectmen have just recently sent a letter of intent expressing interest.
She contrasted that process with the town’s quick adoption of a Front Porch Forum, at a cost of $1,500, according to Holzapfel. She said the board acted more quickly only because one member, Jim Warden, was directly familiar with Front Porch.
“Contrast that with the Encore Redevelopment situation, where despite the positive experiences with the towns of Milton, South Burlington, half-a-dozen other institutions in Addison County and Chittenden County, that wasn’t good enough,” Holzapfel said. “They didn’t want to go forward with it because, as far as I could tell, no one had any personal experience with either solar arrays or Encore … despite lots of goading from the energy committee and Carl Cole.”
But Lawrence said the board was simply performing due diligence.
“Yes, we were slow, but steady. We wanted to check out the land to see first if we could do this project on it,” Lawrence said. “We do take our time, but … we do move forward. Maybe at a snail’s pace at times, but we want to have all the answers and know it’s a good thing.”
POPULAR OR NOT?
Holzapfel insists many residents are not happy with the selectboard, and she could help change its direction.
“I think one of the main reasons people should vote for me, kind of unfortunately, is that a number of people have gotten just demoralized by how the selectboard treats them,” Holzapfel said. “The town of Ferrisburgh would benefit if the selectboard was more inclusive and took (residents’) recommendations seriously. I think I would do a good job, but I don’t want it for me, I want it for the town and the residents.”
But Lawrence said some board decisions will inevitably please some more than others.
“That goes back to implementing public policy. All the different groups have needs, and if you can’t totally satisfy one group, they do tend to feel neglected. But, again, I think our board’s decisions and my decisions are made on what’s best for the town as a whole,” she said. “We do listen, but not everyone can get what they want. But we try.”
And Lawrence said her years on the job would be valuable moving forward.
“I have 12 years of experience. It’s been a learning experience, and I felt I’ve done a good job,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot, and I love this town and I know the people, and I know many of their needs, and I try to look out for those needs as a selectboard member. I try to be mindful of all the citizens.”
Holzapfel said her mediation skills would be helpful in resolving the neighbor disputes that inevitably come before the board, and that her election would make the board better represent the town.
“Ferrisburgh is a great place to live,” she said. “It would be a real benefit if the selectboard was more reflective of the town as a whole.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.