Pownal board considers eliminating Economic Development Committee

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Editor's note: The board was reconvened Thursday evening after its adjournment. Board members then voted 3-2 against the motion to disband the town's Economic Development Committee.

POWNAL — A Select Board meeting was abruptly adjourned Thursday night after audience members failed to come to order, ending discussion of a motion to disband the town's Economic Development Committee.

The board and audience members had engaged in heated discussion regarding disbanding the EDC, whose chairwoman, Shannon McLenithan, is waging a write-in campaign for a one-year seat on the Select Board.

Bob Jarvis, board member, had motioned to disband the committee, saying it had been "weaponized," particularly by McLenithan.

Jarvis expressed opposition to the recent donation by grassroots community organization Discover Pownal of its website, Facebook page and newsletter to the EDC.

He argued that the EDC has become "a platform for ... personal political campaigning" and "backdoor dealings" outside of its intended scope. "The position of chair has also been weaponized against other citizens and board members without any accountability or responsibility for mistreatment of others," he said.

Jarvis said that "most of us have seen the extremely derogatory language" used by McLenithan against fellow committee members, and that the chair, along with former Town Administrator Michael Walker and another Select Board member, sought to prevent a "capable and willing citizen," who he did not name, from sitting on the committee.

McLenithan confirmed Friday that she had used derogatory language to refer to fellow committee member John Bushee in an email, something she regrets. "I regret the choice of words, but I thought it was private, and I was terribly frustrated," she said. "It should never have been said."

She said she received multiple emails that had derogatory comments from Walker, who was dismissed by the board on Nov. 18.

"They've gone through all of Michael Walker's emails, and anybody who he emailed we're now being misrepresented like we used those words," she said. Those emails were released in December in response to a FOIA request.

McLenithan told the Banner last week that the Discover Pownal website, which is intended to promote the town as a place to live, visit and do business in, was a gift to the committee.

Noting that Jarvis was against the formation of the EDC, she said, "I guess my response would be that Bob Jarvis' motion to disband the Economic Development Committee supports my original statement that economic development was being threatened."

The discussion about eliminating the committee came after Bushee spoke to the board about his concerns regarding the recent gift from Discover Pownal. This had been warned as an agenda item.

Bushee put the Discover Pownal gift on the Select Board agenda "against the vote of the Economic Development Committee," McLenithan said.

Bushee said at Thursday's meeting that the committee had voted, after some discussion, to wait "and put this off."

"And yet it still got brought up, it was put in the Banner," he said. "That being put in the Banner, I feel like that was going against what the board just voted, and maybe a political push."

He asked the board to remove McLenithan from her position. EDC members are appointed by the Select Board.

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Jarvis said at the meeting that the committee cannot accept gifts on behalf of the town.

A member of the committee, Gerol Petruzella, presented a statement to the board at Thursday's meeting, which fellow committee member Matt Barin read aloud.

In it, he states that at the committee's Feb. 12 meeting, they discussed accepting the Discover Pownal website, and several things the committee would have to do due diligence on, including regulatory guidelines.

Posted minutes for that meeting state that the committee agreed to develop policies in relation to the gifted materials first and then present to the Select Board.

"The economic value of acquiring an established digital property without start up expense is, I think, quite clear," Petruzella said in the statement read by Barin. He added that as a volunteer committee, the members are free to conduct their work without politicking, "and that is what we will do."

Barin said he had never once seen an email about keeping someone off the board.

"There's no reason for me to do something illicit or backhanded," he said. "This is really about a website that has business listings."

Jarvis said that he didn't believe Barin was involved in the behavior he mentioned.

Harry Percey Jr., clerk of the board, said that he believes accepting a website like that goes against town policy.

"As far as the Discover Pownal page, I believe that promotes local businesses and stuff, and it's not the town's policy to have a website with local business, if I'm remembering that correctly," he said.

In his lengthy explanation, Jarvis said that he believed the board needs to "completely disband" the EDC and re-evaluate the creation of a new one at a later date. The Select Board should be "completely hands-on" with the creation of the mission, structures and processes of that committee, which can then be filled with "any and all" interested citizens to create a diverse group, he said.

Economic development is so vitally important to the health and future of Pownal, he said, that it should not be left in the hands of an "exclusionary group that does not seem to understand transparency and the way that representative democracy works."

At the meeting, Jarvis stated that accepting a gift from an organization that is "actively campaigning and supporting a political candidate" is not appropriate.

Audience member Rose-Marie Pelletier responded that she thinks there is "a tremendous amount of confusion" between the Discover Pownal website and the organization itself.

"If you look at that site, that has done nothing about politicizing anything," she said. "There is nothing that is political about the gifted part of this."

McLenithan said she believed that Jarvis never wanted the committee to succeed.

"I wish people could use the energy they're using to bring down other people and harness that to the good of Pownal," she said.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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