Front Porch Forum & Open Meeting Law

At the last Selectboard meeting, my colleague, Matt Gadbois, asked whether the use of Front Porch Forum violates Open Meeting Law (OML).  He referenced my post about the Town Forest, and the maple tapping contract approved by the Selectboard prior to my term as a member.

Since the contract was considered a “done deal” by the board and no longer a matter of public business, my view is that there was no violation of OML.  It would be like posting a commentary on a decision made anytime in the past — two weeks, a month, a year, or several years.  My commentary was an expression of transparency regarding an issue that the Board had approved and no longer considered a matter of business.

By Matt’s question is worth asking, reminding us of the gray area surrounding the use of email and social media.  The question is whether or not a public business discussion involves a majority of the Board.  The answer isn’t simple.  There are a lot of, “It depends…” type of responses from legal experts.

Northfield’s own Joe McLean is such an expert.  Joe grew up in Northfield and now lives and works as a municipal attorney at Stitzel Page & Fletcher in Burlington.  I came across a video clip posted on Facebook April 15, 2015, from an education seminar hosted by and for the benefit of the Shelburne Selectboard while researching the question.

Obviously, I don’t want to violate OML, so I’ve taken it upon myself to climb up the learning curve.  Most of my research has been through resources available at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.  But I think it was pretty cool to find my childhood neighbor from Freeman Rd/Homewilde Lane in the video.  A full-length video of the educational seminar is here — I’m sure you’ll click right over to watch it, right?  : )

I’m looking forward to hearing a legal response from Matt’s question.  Part of my role on the Selectboard is to communicate and help make local government more transparent. If one member of the Board offers commentary in a virtual form, does it mean there’s an unannounced public meeting if the other Board members can read (but do not comment on) the post?

For the sake of transparency, I hope not.   It would be ironic if the law which intends to provide government transparency actually prevents me from sharing news about current events before the Board.

Back to Matt raising the question, I have to say I’ve quickly grown to appreciate his respect for adherence to the rules of discussion.  On a side note, I also appreciate David Maxwell‘s steady hand, professionalism, and leadership on the Board.

On the back-end of this site, I’ll have to block my colleagues from commenting on NatesUpdates in order to prevent a violation of OML.  I’ll also have to block them on Facebook and Twitter.  So if I say a good word about them, I hope a non-elected official passes along the sentiment.

 

Heroin Bust by Northfield’s Finest

It’s easy to read about the heroin epidemic in Vermont and across America without imagining it would ever come close to home.  But in February 2014,  John Cruickshank made the announcement in a headline article in the Northfield News:  Heroin Comes to Northfield.

Since then, it seems the reaction has been muted, with heroin discussed in local forums primarily in reference to the legalization of marijuana.  The idea of heroin in Northfield remains in context to the state and national trend.

But heroin is here and we need to address the problem.  It’s a health issue, a public safety issue and a criminal issue.  There’s no easy answer.  In my view, heroin needs to be addressed through all branches of government, as well as the institutions of police enforcement, healthcare facilities and our schools.

Today, I’m pleased to share the news that Corporal Christopher Quesnel of the Northfield Police Department seized 1000 bags of heroin in response to a Be On the Lookout (BOL) call from the Vermont State Police dispatch.

A vehicle operator was reported as driving erratically North on I-89.  Cpl. Quesnel stopped the driver just north of Exit 5 and, well, you can read what happened from his report.  (To read the full report, click here:  1000 Bags: Report of Corporal Christopher Quesnel.)

renee guy_press release.pdf

Northfield Police Sergeant Brian Hoar assisted with the arrest, securing Guy’s vehicle until the search warrant was obtained.  31.5 grams of heroin, packaged with a dealer’s logo,  was seized.  Guy is now in custody with bail set at $15,000.

Northfield Police Chief Jim Dziobek later said that the arrest did more than take 1000 bags of heroin off the street.  The logo, a black ink skull and crossbones labeled “Strong Medicine”, can be used to identify the dealer.  This information is more valuable than heroin.  Working with the Vermont State Police and the State’s Attorney, Northfield’s finest are helping identify the heroin supply chain for law enforcement througout the region.

Kudos to the Cpl. Christopher Quesnel and the Northfield Police Department for their success.  Keep up the good work!

5 Bindles of Heroin

Town Contract with Turkey Hill Maple

Here’s an update on “Sweet Deal?  Maple Producer to Tap Town Forest” regarding a 20-acre mistake on the part of Turkey Hill Maple, and the contract the company requested from the Town of Northfield for use of the Town Forest.

It appears that a 5-year contract has  been awarded to Turkey Hill Maple.  I’ve posted a copy of the full agreement here: Turkey Hill Maple contract

I have more concerns about this than I did earlier.  And it’s not about trees or maple syrup.  I’m wondering whether or not the Town followed an adequate process and whether or not we are seeing best practices in how the Selectboard makes decisions.

Here are some red flags I’m seeing.

 Legality.  The Town should have taken a step back to ask whether there are legal questions about the commercial use of public resources prior to voting in favor of a contract.  It turns out, there may be legal issues which, if challenged, could cost the Town legal expenses and potentially render the contract null and void.

Conflict of Interest.  A selectboard member cited a personal relationship with an employee of Turkey Hill Maple as a basis for his support of the decision to negotiate a contract with the company.  This is the definition of an “indirect personal interest” as described in the Selectboard Handbook, page 21:

“A conflict may be present when a local official acts on a matter in which the member’s judgment may be affected because of a family or personal relationship, or membership in some organization, and a desire to help that person or organization further its own interests.”

Input from the community.  A commercial contract in which one company benefits from a public resource should involve some input from the community.  As you may have noticed in the comments section in my first post on this subject, use of the Town Forest is a matter of interest and there are diverse views which should have been considered.

Role of the Advisory Committee.  The Town Forest is one of the primary advisory areas for the Northfield Conservation Committee.  The NCC wasn’t informed about the pending contract until after the Feb 28th Selectboard vote.  Upon learning about the proposal, the NCC submitted a Tree Tapping Memo for the March 9th Selectboard meeting, concluding:  “Should the town want to look into opening the forest to this kind of activity in the future, a policy should first be put in place to ensure the forest resources are treated responsibly and in a manner that the town’s residents wholeheartedly support.”

These are my thoughts.  As you may recall from my first post, my initial question was, “How would you feel if someone set up sugaring operations on 20 acres of your property by mistake — then asked you to sign a contract?”

But there’s a bigger problem here.

For me, the issue isn’t about whether trees should be tapped in the Town Forest or not. What I’m seeing here is a systemic problem in how we as a Town govern ourselves and make decisions.  There have been controversies and mistakes in the past which were completely preventable if the Board had followed a process using best practices in governance.

More simply put, we need to “Do it Once and Do it Right.”

How does the board do it once and do it right?  Well, my first recommendation is that all board members annually attend professional development opportunities provided by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT), but I’ll save that for another post.  In the meantime, here are some basic recommendations.

Before the Selectboard makes a decision, it needs to ask a couple of questions, like:

  • Is this what the people of Northfield want?
  • Do we have the authority to make this decision?  Do we need to look at state policy?
  • How have other communities approached this issue?
  • What are some legal issues we haven’t thought of?  Are there any land mines we might step on?
  • Does any board member present a conflict of interest?

I’m sure I’ll learn quite a bit over the next 3 years and I certainly don’t’ feel as if I have all the answers on the subject of local governance.  I just think we can do better.

How do you feel about all this? 

Are you satisfied with how the deal was struck with Turkey Hill Maple?  Do you think the process is adequate, or do you want to see more?  What do you think could have been done better?   Leave a comment!

As for the specifics regarding the Town Forest and the Turkey Hill Maple contract — if you’re upset, then you need to speak up.  Not just to me — to the entire Selectboard.

You can send your thoughts to:  selectboard@northfield.vt.us

 

Sweet Deal? Maple Producer to Tap Town Forest

Northfield Trails and Maps   TrailLink

On February 12th, a Barre-based commercial maple producer, Turkey Hill Maple, self-reported an error in setting up part of their operations on the Northfield Forest, which of course is public property.  Owners Judith and Howard Anderson wrote in a letter to the town:

“About a week ago we found out we over-reached our line system to include a few trees that belong to the town.  …I think we misread the map and delineation of property lines.  To confirm that, our installer met with the Surveyor yesterday that produced the Town Maps years ago.  I’m wondering if it is possible to get a temporary lease for at least this year to tap those trees in return for payment to the town.”

The Andersons emphasized that no trees had been tapped — however, the tubing running from tree to tree had already been installed.

How far did they overreach the boundary into the Town Forest?  About 20 acres and enough trees to provide 1500-2000 taps.

Town Manager Jeff Schulz raised concern that the value of the trees might be reduced should any be damaged in the tapping process.  He also noted that he found no examples of such arrangements on public land elsewhere.

The Selecboard discussed the request on February 23rd (prior to my term on the Board) and voted 4-0 authorizing the Town Manager to negotiate a lease agreement with Turkey Hill Farm, contingent on a forester’s report and proof of liability insurance.

I learned about the maple tapping request on March 4th, the Friday before my first meeting in my 3-year term on the Selectboard.  A follow-up discussion about the deal was on the agenda.

When I read the agenda and materials, I wondered if the folks on the Conservation Committee knew about the proposal.  The Town Forest is part of the Committee’s scope of work, so it seemed as if they should be informed.  In a brief phone conversation with Committee Chair, Pam Knox, said, No, they knew nothing about sap lines being strung or trees which were ready to tap.

At the March 8th Selectboard meeting, I raised questions about the amount of property which had been encroached, the proposed $1 price per tap for a 10-year contract and the lack of policy regarding commercial use of public property.  My fellow members replied that they had already given an approval to Turkey Hill Maple.  The contract, however, had not yet been signed.  I asked if any other maple producers knew of the agreement or if the Selectboard had contacted the Conservation Committee.  The answer was, “No,” to both.

The rationale for the go-ahead came from three members, with four distinct responses:

  1. The trees were already set to be tapped and a vote to remove tubing would cost Turkey Hill Maple a lot of money.
  2. The opportunity to generate long-term revenue on land “not being used” would be good for the budget.
  3. One member said he knew the installer and attested to his personal integrity and quality of work.
  4. Another member asserted the tapping of trees couldn’t harm high value trees.

However, the Conservation Committee offered observations and provided suggestions in a letter submitted to the Board:

“After doing some quick research, we found that there are apparently some towns that have opened up their forests for this type of activity, but only after they have put in place effective policies.  In developing a policy, the town’s residents should be asked to provide input as to whether this is a use that is in keeping with their goals and vision for the Town Forest. …Policies may include a fair bidding process, a lease, and agreed upon details as to how and where the activity should take place.”

The letter went on to say that the value of the lease should be $1-$2 per tap.

So this has been an interesting subject.  For me, I have to say my concern isn’t about whether or not the town should lease its trees for maple production, or what a policy should look like.

My primary concern is about a huge mistake over property boundaries.

Imagine you owned a piece of land somewhere out in the back-forty which you never used, except to maybe walk through from time to time.

Now imagine someone approached you, saying, “Oops, I ran my sugaring operation onto 20 acres of your property by mistake.  Can we sign a lease?”

What would you think?

 

Appointed Positions

Planning & Zoning — Please consider your role.

On Tuesday I will be attending my first meeting as a member of the Selectboard. I will begin posting regular updates to help keep you informed of my work.

But first, let’s talk about you.

If you interested in change, please consider playing a role. While some positions are elected, members of several governing bodies are appointed. Of these, I hope you consider applying for the following:

Planning Commission. One (4) year appointment; One (3) year appointment
Zoning Board of Adjustment. One (5) year appointment; One (4) year appointment

These are very important positions because, on Tuesday, there is a resolution to create a Design Review Board. The DRB membership will be composed of current members of the ZBA. Whether or not the DRB is created, these roles are important because they govern the development of the town.

Please consider requesting an appointed position. All positions up for appointment by the end of the month can be found here: http://northfield-vt.gov/text/Current_Notices/2016%20_Town_Appointments.pdf