UPDATED: Vergennes mayor resigns after city councilor sees his texts; Bill Benton resigns
UPDATED: To include news that Bill Benton has resigned from the city council.
VERGENNES — A majority of the Vergennes City Council voted at a special meeting on Thursday to accept the resignation of Mayor Jeff Fritz.
Deputy Mayor Lynn Jackson Donnelly automatically took over as mayor through Town Meeting Day.
Amidst the resulting brouhaha, over the weekend City Councilor Bill Benton resigned from the board.
The Thursday, July 16, meeting had been warned to allow the council and citizens to have a “Discussion regarding accusations that the Vergennes Police Department is demoralizing and intimidating people,” and most of the 75 attendees who spoke backed a proposed citizen panel to work with the police department and City Manager Dan Hofman in an advisory capacity in overseeing police.
But the meeting quickly focused on Fritz when Hofman unveiled a string of texts between him and Fritz from Wednesday morning.
Those texts revealed the mayor was the source of those accusations; made apparent threats against Deputy Mayor Lynn Jackson Donnelly and Councilor David Austin, although he claimed to be joking; and made light of police morale.
The texts, the complete versions of which Hofman made public at Thursday’s meeting, included the following statements from Fritz:
• “Honestly, citizens are intimidated by our police and a citizen group can change that.”
• “I don’t give two shits about their (police) morale. They’ve demoralized citizens long enough.” (On Friday morning Fritz said he meant the impact on police morale shouldn’t be a factor in the discussion on whether to form a citizen advisory panel.)
• “And if LJD (Donnelly) doesn’t simmer down soon, I’m taking her to the woodshed … Along with DA (David Austin).”
• “LJD has pissed a lot of people off.”
Fritz also texted a GIF of a smiling woman with the caption “Honey, you’ve got a big storm comin’” that Hofman at first was not sure threatened him or Donnelly.
When Hofman texted, “(I don’t think) we should be threatening anyone. Myself or Lynn. ‘Honey you have a big storm coming.’ That’s not cool.” Fritz responded, “Oh heavens. Apologies. It’s been a rough day. I was trying to be humorous. Forgive me.” (See an image of the text string here.)
After Hofman’s presentation, Donnelly, who as deputy mayor automatically would take over as mayor through Town Meeting Day if Vergennes were to lose its mayor, read a prepared statement that concluded by asking for Fritz’s resignation.
“The ultimate bullying comes directly from you, Mr. Mayor. Your threatening the city manager, David Austin, and even more directly me is an outrage. This will not stop me from having my opinions and expressing them in the future,” Donnelly read.
“If this sitting council accepts this conduct from the mayor, then shame on all of you. You have pushed me to this statement, and all of this is true. So I suggest strongly you step down as mayor immediately.” (Read the full text of Donnelly's statement here.)
Austin preferred to speak off the cuff.
“Jeff, you’re going to take me to the woodshed? Who do you think you are?” Austin said. “You’re the mayor of a city of 2,800 people. You don’t own this city, and you don’t run it, either. Daniel runs it. You’re going to take me to the woodshed because you and I disagree? … Because I believe the morale of city departments is important and you don’t give two shits about it? You read a statement condemning intimidation, and that’s exactly what you’re trying to do here. I’m going to tell you it’s not going to work with me, and I don’t think it’s going to work with Lynn, either.”
Fritz then asked for more comment, and hearing none said, “We can probably end this discussion pretty quickly if the council is in agreement that I should resign.”
Donnelly then made the motion, and Austin seconded. Only Councilor Mark Koenig voted Nay, and he clarified later it was because he didn’t like the process and could have voted differently with more time for discussion and deliberation.
COMPLAINTS ABOUT PROCESS
Koenig was not alone in being unhappy with the process.
Resident Nial Rele, a member of the council-appointed committee studying whether the advisory committee is necessary, said Fritz’s ouster looked planned, a remark that drew agreement in Zoom claps in the side chat. In an email to the Independent, Rele called it a “neatly coordinated coup.”
In an email to councilors sent after the Thursday meeting Hofman shared the full texts and wrote this:
“Attached are the text messages. This is the first I have shared these with anyone. I talked to Mayor Donnelly and Councilman Austin on the phone about the threats towards the three of us and how I felt very uncomfortable.”
Koenig and Benton said they and other councilors were upset the rest of council had not seen the texts prior to the meeting. Koenig referred to the situation as “an ambush,” and Benton said he “didn’t think it was handled properly.”
“I don’t think that was dealt with appropriately without full council knowledge,” Benton said.
Donnelly said she wrote her statement at 4 p.m. and the request for Fritz to consider resigning was a last-minute addition, not part of any plan.
“I hadn’t spoken to anyone else about that,” Donnelly said, adding, “I didn’t ask for it (the vote). Jeff asked for it.”
Benton said he was concerned about fallout from Thursday’s meeting given that many already seem to be taking sides in an at-times heated debate about the police advisory committee.
“Unfortunately I can see this just creating more division,” Benton said.
Donnelly in her statement also cited a false narrative pitting Black Lives Matter supporters vs. backers of the police department.
And Rele said in his email to the Independent he hoped Thursday’s events and the debate surrounding them wouldn’t detract from the work of the police advisory panel study committee, which received almost unanimous support in a 90-minute discussion at the meeting.
“We are a balanced group of honest and dedicated residents (in fact, our membership includes the new mayor’s husband), who are volunteering our time to have a difficult conversation. There has not yet been a recommendation from the group, so there isn’t even anything to disagree with yet, but we welcome all voices to our meetings,” he wrote.
“The VPD, too, has the opportunity to not only be a participant in the process, but a leader in this conversation. Vergennes — let’s shut out the distractions and do the work together.”
In a statement released Friday morning, Hofman said the way Thursday’s meeting “was an unfortunate event.”
He hoped that residents would take from this situation the message that the city takes complaints of police intimidation seriously and acts quickly when made award of them.
“As the City of Vergennes moves forward, the public can rest assured that the city will take swift action in the face of any serious allegation,” Hofman wrote.
On Sunday morning email to Hofman, Donnelly and the other city council members, Bill Benton resigned from the council effective immediately. He wrote:
"After much thought and consideration I will resign from the Vergennes City Council immediately. I have given almost forty years of my life to this community in municipal positions and non-profit boards. I have tried to be a steady hand that offered history and prospective. The events of the past few days have shown that our community is filled with vitriol and mistrust. The road forward will be time consuming and difficult. I have a heavy workload, close family and new grandchild. I do not have the time or the energy to fulfill the commitment that will be necessary to bring our community back together. I wish our community the very best going forward."