Volatile Opening to Select Board Meeting

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – The September 3rd select board meeting opened the floor for public comment and the board got several earfuls from the few attendees. Town Manager Shaun Fielder updated the board on the Yellow Barn, cost increases, the swinging bridge, work on the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail (LVRT) and the new Wastewater Treatment Project. The board also deliberated the sign policy (also covered in a separate article) and, with crisper nights creeping closer, mulled the future viability of in-person meetings during COVID-dark winter nights. Police Chief Aaron Cochran spoke about the data gleaned by his department from the speed sign installed on West Church Street.

The verbal fireworks began with one resident voicing displeasure with town officials they said behaved unprofessionally on multiple occasions. The resident’s concerns included drivers speeding by their home at 65-70 mph. “The police do nothing, ever,” the resident said. “It’s not fair to me.” The person asked the select board to equip officers with “truth boxes” later clarified to mean body cameras. The frustrated resident stated “this town’s being run kind of shady and half-assed. You can buy my house and I’ll leave this town.”

Another resident voiced concern about vehicles speeding in the area around Spring Street and asked that a 20 m.p.h. speed zone be put in place. The person said cars come through the area “going 55 and 60 m.p.h., they stomp it,” and that speaking to Chief Cochran had not resolved the issue. The resident described a pickup truck with a large American flag affixed to its bed as one of the speeding vehicles. “They’re real patriotic, these guys coming through here with no exhaust throwing things out the window.” Chief Cochran said per state law officers cannot enforce speed limits under 25 m.p.h. The resident offered to document the vehicle’s license plate number, but Chief Cochran said that is not allowed for speed offenses. Select Board Chair Eric Remick said it was “unrealistic to think we’re going to solve this with patrols.”

The board responded to both residents that this new information would be taken into consideration.

Chief Cochran said a week’s worth of data obtained from West Church Street’s driver information sign “does show some of the information we were receiving from the public may be somewhat inaccurate” regarding speeding motorists in the area. Of the 6,444 vehicles tracked, nine showed speeds 10 m.p.h. over 25 m.p.h. and 5 showed higher speeds, he said.

“To sit there and catch that needle in a haystack” was unworkable, he said, adding, “we also have a very strong opiate issue that we are dealing with, which is taking our focus away from some aspects of community policing. Many of us would rather be shaking hands and kissing babies.”

Board member Ceilidh Galloway-Kane told Chief Cochran she received “a few anonymous reports” about disturbing posts made by officers on social media. “Granted this is on their own time, it’s on their personal social media posts,” Galloway-Kane said, “but [the posts] are not friendly to say the least.” Galloway-Kane offered to share the posts at a later time and asked where Chief Cochran stood on “educating our town workers to make sure that everybody feels included and safe” and that “our service lives are matching our personal lives.” She asked whether public servants are permitted to post offensive statements on social media that could reflect badly on the town. “I feel like even if I’m at work, I’m still responsible for upholding and reflecting my town as a select board member and as an educator,” she said. “I would love to understand what’s okay and what’s not okay.”

Chief Cochran responded that there is “no right or wrong answer” and additional training might be in order. “I don’t really know what the answer is yet,” he said. “I believe there are some [court] rulings on social media and posts, but I don’t have any of those in hand.” Cochran acknowledged the issue is a “very touchy subject across the nation,” raising questions of freedom of speech. “I’m being somewhat generalized because I don’t have all the information you’re talking about,” he said.

Galloway-Kane responded, “I just want to make sure that our police officers are safe, and our community is safe as well.” Galloway-Kane will share the social media posts at the next meeting, she said.

Fielder addressed the ongoing issue of what repairs will be needed to restore the swinging bridge. Montpelier-based DeWolfe Engineering Associates, PC, made a visual inspection and agreed the bridge should remain closed to the public. Fielder said the firm believed repairs are likely to be extensive. “It is likely that replacement of the bridge will be less expensive than repair,” he said. Vice Chair Elizabeth Dow noted that, save for a single renovation in the past 20 years and recent re-decking, the bridge dated to 1915. Fielder said going forward the board should keep in mind another town property in need of repair. “We’re at a point where we need to do something with the public works garage,” he said. A bid is out for the Public Safety Building’s roof, due on September 16, and “everybody is really scrambling” to get that work done with a November 13 target.

The Yellow Barn has seen a financial impact from COVID-19. Remick said “there’s a gap between expected project cost and funding,” attributed to cost increases in building materials and design creep. “The cost per square foot went up and the square footage went up,” he explained. Among the problems encountered, he noted “it didn’t really help that when the state DOT replaced the bridge at Jackson Dam, they buried the old bridge [underneath].” He said the “gap” described was roughly $3 million “between what we had funds secured and [the] new cost estimate that came in.” The Yellow Barn project partners applied for a $1 million grant through the Northern Border Regional Commission to help address the shortfall and are actively seeking additional grants. The original estimated cost was $8.7 million and now it’s closer to $12 million, which Remick said is “a huge jump, we’re shocked.” Fielder said everyone involved was reviewing options and “we’ve got to be economical, we’re really trying to evaluate what the options are.”

In LVRT news, the state has taken control over a major Hardwick section, meaning funds previously allocated by the town will not be used for the actual trail construction. Much of the funding came from the USDA, which agreed to amend the terms of the grant to allow funds to be spent on ancillary assets. Parking is an issue according to Fielder, but other ideas were on the table. “We’ve got some time, we’re not going to lose that grant,” he said. Remick suggested some of the funding could go towards shuttling people downtown from the LVRT, especially more distant parts such as by the Yellow Barn.

A replacement vehicle for the water and sewer truck was approved, a new 2020 Dodge Ram 1500 Tradesman. At $24,314 the vehicle was more expensive than the lowest-cost state price of $22,827 for a 2021 Dodge Ram 1500 Tradesman and is white in color instead of the preferred red, but Fielder noted, “there’s issues with the supply chain.” The newer truck would likely be delivered at least 60-120 days out from the ordering date, and that was an optimistic estimate, according to Business Manager Casey Rowell. The board did not feel comfortable signing off on a truck with no clear delivery date and voted for the 2020 truck, with Remick stating “we’ll get the truck that actually exists.” Currently, other trucks are being swapped in as needed.

One agenda item concerned requirements for organizations seeking appropriations funding at Town Meeting during COVID-19. Three organizations are slotted for the upcoming meeting. The normal process by which organizations justify their funding is through signed petitions, but pandemic measures have made it difficult to obtain signatures. Remick proposed that petitions not be required for the three organizations set to be voted on in March. Any new organizations seeking funding would need to fulfill the petition obligation. Galloway-Kane opposed the motion, Board Member Shari Cornish, who is involved with the Town House, abstained, and the other three members voted in favor, passing the motion.

This night’s meeting, as many have been, was held both in-person and remotely, with mixed results. Technical difficulties resulted in Rowell using her phone on speaker to hear both Galloway-Kane’s input and the presentation on the wastewater plant by Aldrich + Elliott, PC. Remick and others noted fully-remote meetings held during lockdown had functioned well, as had fully-in-person meetings before the pandemic. The hybrid meetings often suffered from technical issues, especially regarding audio. Fielder noted that the room presently used for meetings to accommodate physical distancing would not be heatable during the winter. The normal meeting room is smaller and could potentially accommodate all the select board members with proper distancing. With no end to COVID-19 on the horizon, board and Fielder are considering a return to remote meetings in the near future.