Putney town clerk saga triggers statewide questions

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PUTNEY — When the local official set to preside over Tuesday's town meeting resigned 10 hours earlier after a year of conflict, who would — or could — succeed her was just the first of a long list of questions.

Town Clerk and Treasurer Denise Germon won election last March, only to stop working in May without offering a timely reason or resignation. That left this community with several challenges: How do you replace someone who still legally held office until she stepped down Monday? And how do you oversee town meeting voting when the person authorized to do so quit at midnight without a clear succession plan?

Putney selectmen and justices of the peace, holding a Board of Civil Authority session an hour before the start of Tuesday's 10 a.m. town meeting, responded by appointing longtime former Town Clerk Anita Coombs to serve as the day's "presiding officer."

Soon after, voters cast ballots on separate articles to appoint rather than elect its municipal clerk and municipal treasurer — options the state Legislature approved just last year.

Both items won approval by comfortable margins, unofficial counts showed Tuesday night.

Putney, population 2,702, isn't the only Vermont community debating such a proposal this week. Colchester, population 17,067, and Corinth, population 1,367, are considering similar plans.

In Pownal on Tuesday, voters considered appointing clerks instead of electing them, but the article was shot down on a vote of 434 to 296. The proposal from the Selectboard followed discovery that the former town clerk had fallen behind over several years in paying the state's portion of license fees during a prolonged period of illness and absence from the office for all of 2017.

But the Windham County town reports singular circumstances that have led to months of dissension and debate.

Germon recently released a letter explaining why she hadn't stepped foot in the town clerk and treasurer's office for months even though she had worked as assistant town clerk for a decade without incident.

"I had never engaged in office politics, nor been particularly active in town politics either," she wrote. "Consequently, when I decided to run for these positions I was not as aware as I should have been of the fact that the Select Board had been working for some time to eliminate the treasurer's role in town government and transfer all control over the town's finances to the town manager."

Germon voiced concern that, as the person elected to the treasurer's position, she was legally responsible for any check she signed, even though fellow local leaders wouldn't grant her a computer password to see the corresponding funds.

"I will not sign checks when I am prevented from having access to all of the financial data behind them," she wrote. "And I will not work in an environment in which I am demeaned and treated with disrespect. Since it is now clear that the present Select Board has no intention of addressing either of those issues, it is with profound regret that I have decided that I must resign from the positions of town clerk and treasurer."

Germon, who wasn't present at town meeting, closed her letter by expressing "my sincere hope that the town can come together" and "instruct the Select Board that it wants to see its elected officials work together collaboratively."

In response, the town's three selectmen said nothing more than that they would meet Wednesday to name an interim replacement.

"It's likely to be a pretty simple, straightforward appointment," Selectman Joshua Laughlin said. "In the meantime, the clerk's office will, for all practical purposes, be closed."

"While we may have the power to appoint, we don't have the power to disappoint," colleague R. Scott Henry added. "It has been an unfortunate situation. Hopefully we'll heal and move on."

That may take time. Germon's lawyer, Fletcher Proctor, said the town's recent actions "disenfranchised the electorate," although he didn't anticipate his client would push her case further.

"I think it's sad," Proctor said, "that no one has thought to thank Denise for a decade of service."

The town meeting crowd instead gave Coombs a bouquet of flowers and applauded the adults who set up the sound system and students who assisted with the microphones.

"We couldn't do this job," Henry said, "without people to help us."


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