Editorial: In Vergennes, this too shall pass
The situation with the Vergennes City Council is a mess, and no sugarcoating the state of affairs could paint it any differently. But, as with most things political in small communities, when residents pull together to resolve their problems, brighter days lay ahead.
The question at hand is how long will it take for residents to regain the trust of city leaders?
First, residents will have to elect four new city council members to replace the four who resigned over the past two-plus weeks, and that new group of seven will have to decide how to reconstruct city leadership in ways that don’t cause more suspicion. It won’t be easy.
The next hurdle is to address the less-than-ideal optics that the July 16 meeting presented to city residents. In that meeting, it appeared Mayor Jeffrey Fritz was ambushed by two council members and the city manager, and was strong-armed into resigning. Many city residents are referring to that action as “a coup” that installed deputy mayor Lynn Donnelly as mayor. More than 231 residents have signed a petition criticizing the way that meeting was handled.
What’s also true is that Mayor Fritz wrote several texts to City Manager Daniel Hofman that inappropriately suggested taking Donnelly and fellow council member David Austin to task. Whether those were in jest, as Fritz suggested, or not, all agree they were inappropriate and should never have been written. That the mayor resigned when asked, and that the council agreed 5-1, is proof to that.
But the manner in which the mayor’s resignation came about is troubling. First, the city manager sent those inappropriate texts (written to him privately, even though they are technically in the public record) to just the two council members, rather than all members of the council; second, Donnelly read from a prepared statement at the July 16 meeting asking for the mayor’s resignation, indicating that her actions were well prepared and planned; third, no one told the mayor that they planned to confront him with that information at a public meeting, nor was the item appropriately warned. At the very least, it was an ambush of a city official as well as a violation of public meeting rules.
The fallout from that meeting is that the mayor resigned, as did three other city council members, leaving the council without a quorum. A special election will have to be conducted in late September to elect new council members. To that end, special efforts must be made not to stack the deck for one side or the other in this particular fight, but rather seek candidates who have the city’s long-term interests at heart. More to the point, efforts by Donnelly or Austin to recruit candidates to reflect their priorities would most likely be viewed with suspicion; the best-case scenario is for them to sit on the sidelines and let citizens rise to the occasion on their own.
Donnelly might also consider making it known — the sooner the better — that her interest is not in being mayor, but in seeking a suitable replacement. That might go a long way in helping put aside the notion that a coup occurred.
In the end, city residents must step to the fore to help resolve these issues. Only the citizens have the power of the vote to right any wrongs that have occurred and get the city back on track to what has — in the past — been solid leadership.