After the Waitsfield Select Board heard from town residents Jerry Miller and Scott Kingsbury who argued that Charlie Hosford, a member of the Waitsfield Select Board, had a conflict of interest in two recent decisions made by the select board, the board affirmed its decision to purchase the Birke Photography Studio on Bridge Street.
The decisions relate to the town’s decision to build a new town office on a parcel of land in Waitsfield Village known as the Farm Stand parcel versus rehabilitating the former Methodist church; and second, the select board’s decision to purchase the former Birke Photography Studio parcel on Bridge Street for $20,000.
Miller and Kingsbury brought those concerns to the select board for discussion at the board’s regular meeting on January 28.
Miller read the state’s conflict of interest policy and suggested that it was inappropriate for Hosford, who serves on the town’s Town Office Task Force, to have voted with the select board on whether to accept the task force recommendation on where new town offices should be and, further, that it was inappropriate for Hosford to have urged people impacted by that decision to attend public forums to express their opinions.
“I think the vote on whether you guys were going to follow the opinion of the task force should be null and you should vote and do it over without Charlie being involved,” Miller said.
Hosford asked Miller to be more specific and Miller asked, “Did you get in touch with somebody from the church?”
“I talked to all the tenants in the church and told them that if they had a problem with the town buying the church building for town offices they should come to the forum and express that,” Hosford said.
“So tell me how this is a conflict of interest? There has to be a potential for some kind of gain or an issue of bias,” said board chair Sal Spinosa.
Kingsbury responded, “There doesn’t need to be a gain; it can be a personal interest that causes the bias.”
Spinosa told him that personal interests have been interpreted by the courts to mean financial gain or something that advances a cause in which he/she has a personal (financial) gain.
“If you’re starting to approach people and make this allusion that might not be quite accurate, you’re creating an issue that is causing a trust issue, or maybe using information that’s not accurate to get people to join on,” Kingsbury said.
“So your claim is that Charlie tried to influence the tenants in the church to come here and voice their concerns about losing their space if the town buys the church? Your point is that they didn’t come up with that themselves, that Charlie put that information to them?” asked select board member Bill Parker.
“I told them to come to the forum and express their opinion,” Hosford said.
Board member Paul Hartshorn told Miller that the select board’s decision to follow the task force recommendation and build on the Farm Stand parcel was very much influenced by the cost differential between the two sites.
“One of the major concerns was money. There was a big difference in cost and I think from my perspective that was why we went that way,” Hartshorn said, alluding to the $770,000 cost differential between the two sites.
Moving on to the town’s decision to purchase the Birke Photography Studio parcel on the western abutment of the covered bridge on Bridge Street, Kingsbury alleged that Hosford had engaged in ex-parte discussions about that decision and suggested that Hosford had a conflict of interest in that decision as well because he had a direct or indirect personal interest.
“I ran into Mary Schramke [owner of the building that houses Artisans’ Gallery and Bridge Street Emporium] over the weekend and she said Charlie had discussed the purchase with her and talked about the studio,” Kingsbury said.
“I asked her to come to the meeting,” Hosford said.
“You told her it could be bought for $20,000 and you told her all the reasons why there should not be a building there. When we ended our conversation she decided she’d rather see a building there than a park. I don’t think you disclosed this information before you voted last week,” Kingsbury said.
The building that used to be on the parcel was destroyed during Tropical Storm Irene. The board voted on January 14 (not last week) to purchase the parcel.
“We had an offer; it was public. I invited people on Bridge Street to that meeting where it was being discussed,” Hosford said.
The town received a December 12 letter from the owners of the Birke parcel offering to sell the parcel to the town for $20,000. That letter and the discussion appeared on the select board agenda for the December 17 meeting.
Spinosa informed Kingsbury that there could be no ex-parte communication in this instance because that would require Hosford and Schramke to be on opposite sides of a legal issue.
“But what about the owners? How did Charlie know there was an amount to tell Mary?” Kingsbury asked.
“The owners communicated to me via letter and I shared it with the board and on the agenda which was on the town’s website,” explained town administrator Valerie Capels.
Kingsbury said that he felt that “some of the stuff that’s going on is not allowed,” and said that the building had been there 110 years and that he didn’t think it was accurate to state that it could not be built to withstand the next flood.
Hosford reiterated that the invitation was for Schramke to come to the meeting and listen to the discussion.
Kingsbury said he had questions about whether Hosford should be talking dollar amounts with people before it was an item on the agenda and was told that it was an item on the agenda.
“Well this was two or three weeks ago,” Kingsbury said.
The offer from the Birke owners appeared on the agenda for the December 17 meeting.
Kingsbury also challenged the notion that town ownership of that parcel could help preserve the covered bridge in the next flood by allowing culverting or a change in the abutments.
“After Irene, when Patrick Ross, the ANR stream alternation engineer was here, we talked about stream alteration and what could be done in the future. He said the only things you can do cost a lot of money and that the building had to not be put back there. He said the town had to expand the choke point where the bridge is today,” Parker said.
At the end of the discussion, the select board affirmed its January 14 vote to purchase the Birke parcel by a vote of 3-2. The vote to affirm was along the same lines as the January 14 vote with board members Spinosa, Hosford and Parker voting in favor and board members Logan Cooke and Hartshorn voting against.
The board voted to affirm because last week it received a petition to rescind that vote and bring it before voters at Town Meeting. But Vermont law would not allow the select board to bring such an item by Australian ballot unless the townspeople first vote to change which items are decided by Australian ballot. The board voted to purchase the property using funds from the town’s Conservation Fund. The use of those funds falls under the authority of the select board.