Pownal board, public express anger at email content

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POWNAL — Select Board members and the public alike expressed anger, frustration and dismay at a special meeting on Monday in relation to inflammatory content of emails they said are among the thousands released last month.

The unredacted emails, which had been exchanged among current and former town officials, were released in response to a FOIA request; a number have been made widely available through Facebook postings.

Several board members read statements or presented them informally at the start of the meeting.

"I know there has been a very heated discussion about the emails and their content," Bryan Harris, chairman of the board, said in a prepared statement. "I just want to say I feel the same frustration and anger at the type of language used against some of our citizens by individuals who were supposed to be working for the benefit of the people of the town, not just a select few."

Harris went on to reference the "betrayal of the public's trust" by some of the same people who engaged in discussion of confidential information "provided to them illegally by certain individuals."

"I would expect that as trusted members of this community and town government that you would have stopped the individual from disclosing confidential information and also have notified the Select Board of such egregious actions and violations," he said. "Instead some of you chose not only to listen but also offer input and attempted to manipulate the individuals who divulged the information to you."

Harris did not identify anyone by name.

"For these actions, those of you involved should be ashamed of yourself," Harris said. "For those of you still serving in official capacities for the town, I would expect you to publicly apologize for your actions."

He said he believes the exposure of the emails have been an opportunity for the people of the town to know what has been going on behind the scenes, and the struggle the board has had with "honesty of all town government."

He added that he does not condone "any name-calling or bullying" before and after the email release, and he wants what is best for the citizens of Pownal.

The emails were released in response to a FOIA request from a Michael Dunford for all town emails from Jan. 1 to present involving either Select Board member Marlena Pellon and former board member Jenny Dewar or Pellon and former Town Administrator Michael Walker, who was dismissed by the board on Dec. 9.

Call to resign

Although Harris' statement did not name names, two other board members presented statements specifically calling out Pellon or other town officials.

"The chain of events over the past few weeks have made things completely clear to me," said Elizabeth Rowe, vice chairwoman of the board, in a statement she read at the meeting. "There is really no denying the content of the emails that have been released. They speak for themselves. I'm saddened to say that the divide I thought we as a board could get rid of is still here this divide is because of the actions of a Select Board member and certain appointed officials."

She said that these individuals have lost her respect and trust, and argued that they do not have the people of Pownal's best interests at heart.

"They have lied, misguided [and] manipulated information and people for that matter," she said.

Some have even gone so far as to try to publicly humiliate town employees, fire town employees and "set up" town employees, she said.

She called for Pellon, Dewar, Michael Slattery, Syd Smithers, Crystal Gardner and Shannon McLenithan to resign from their positions.

"Thank you for the invitation, but I have no intention of resigning," Dewar said in a call to the Banner on Tuesday in relation to Rowe's call for her to resign. "I have never used vile language to describe the citizens of Pownal. I have not said anything I am ashamed of."

Dewar, a former member of the Select Board, is a justice of the peace in Pownal. McLenithan is on the recreation board. Slattery is a member of the planning commission and the Development Review Board; Smithers is a member of the DRB and vice chairman of the planning commission. Gardner is an internal auditor.

Pellon responded to criticism in the meeting, saying she "just want[ed] to remind everybody that communication styles come in many forms."

"Not everybody is going to speak how you speak," she said. "There seems to be a lot of assumptions and content insinuations."

She said that if anyone wants to speak to her about her emails, she will make herself available at the town office from 8-9 a.m. this Sunday, and requests those attending bring a copy of the email or emails in question.

Resident Fred Miller read a prepared statement on behalf of board member Bob Jarvis, who was absent.

"It is clear from the released emails that Ms. Pellon was targeting the treasurer, town clerk or administrative assistant for removal of office, dating back to at least April 2018," he said, reading the statement. To achieve this end, she not only misled the board, but attempted to mislead the forensic auditor and the public in open session, he said in the statement.

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Pellon also told the town attorney that they had received confirmation from the forensic auditor that the town treasurer had refused to pay invoices, which was "patently false," Miller read from the statement.

Ellen Strohmaier, town treasurer, also addressed Pellon at Monday's meeting.

"If you way to communicate by email is to try to publicly humiliate someone, shame on you, Marlena," she said, to claps. "That email you cannot defend, because it is in writing." Strohmaier did not specify what email she was referring to.

In an email to the Banner late Monday night, Pellon said she was not communicated with by the board ahead of time to have any type of prepared statement at the meeting, and said a violation of open meeting law may have occurred, "seeing the other 4 board members were so well-prepared."

"It was duly warned on the agenda," Harris told the Banner on Tuesday of the select board member's statements. "I did not ask any board members to give statements. We did not communicate about making statements."

Audience member Megan Randall also spoke at Monday's meeting in defense of Pellon and Slattery. "Every time people try to volunteer, and come into this town with energy and excitement, they get slapped down for one reason or another," she said.

Slattery, she said, has spent years trying to work for the town.

"I can't just sit here and listen to this kind of slander," she said. In regards to Pellon, she said, "just because you disagree with someone — you try to get someone to resign? That's ridiculous."

Rowe replied that was not the issue.

"I see you guys not being very transparent either, with all your executive sessions and all your stuff," Randall said.

Harris replied that every one of the board's executive sessions have been completely legal. "It wasn't us trying to lie," he said.

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Harry Percey Jr., clerk of the board, did not read a prepared statement, but expressed dismay in the town's subcommittee leadership, particularly Slattery.

"I personally have lost trust," he said. "Just disgusting."

He said the board talked about wanting to work together and bring people together.

"I don't tolerate bullying, and never have," he said. "That's how I felt the direction with the TA [Walker] was toward the Select Board."

Derogatory language

The board and the public also had a lengthy, frequently heated discussion about the content of what appeared to be released emails. At one point in the meeting, an audience member who had left came back inside to say people were outside yelling and swearing at her.

Board members and members of the public took issue with a reference in an email by Walker to townspeople as being "knuckle-dragging," or "knuckle-draggers." Donna Lauzon read a list of terms she said were used in emails, including "provincial," "paranoid," delusional," "troublemakers," "liars," "Kool-Aid drinkers," "incompetent" and "retarded."

One woman, Tiffany Zwinge, said it's "unreasonable" for anyone to show up at the meeting having not read the emails.

"Marlena [Pellon] was conniving, manipulative," she said. `If you want to read the emails, I have all of them."

She said a lot of the people involved belong to Empower Pownal, Discover Pownal and "all of those groups."

None of the audience members who spoke said where they had read the emails in question. Some appear to have been posted on a Facebook page called Pownal Government Exposed.

"If you don't know what it says, you can't say it wasn't a big deal," Zwinge said. "It was a big deal. You don't treat people like that. That's the problem with people today."'

Steve McCay said he wanted to thank the board for their statements.

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"It takes a lot of courage to put together the things that you said after the emails were released," he said. "There's a lot of hurtful, disrespectful things that have been said."

He said for a few years now, there's been people behind the scenes, "trying to pull strings and influence our local government."

"So those disrespectful emails released — I'm going to go out on a limb here say the machine is broken," he said. "I don't want to change anything. I think that's the whole point of all of this. In the past 10 years, I met a bunch of good people in Pownal. We're none of those words that are described in that email. We're not knuckle-draggers."

He added that those who think there are so many things that need to be changed in Pownal should probably "drag [their] knuckles" across the state line.

`We can't get everybody to work together'

One woman in the audience asked to clarify "who exactly" is being talked about.

"You keep talking about this 'machine,'" she said. "Who wrote the emails?"

Rowe responded that Walker had used the term "knuckle-draggers" and that Slattery was being "blind-copied" executive session emails from Walker.

Beyond the email content, several board members expressed dismay at the quality of public discourse in town.

"For whatever reason, we can't get everybody to work together," Percey said. "And that's the sad thing."

Harris said he has his core beliefs, but he tries to do what he thinks is best for everyone in town.

"Not everybody is going to get your own way," he said. "It's not all or nothing, scorched earth."

Harris said he has repeated "over and over and over" that the people of Pownal need to come together, communicate, and respect each other.

"We are here for the benefit of Pownal," he said. "I am extremely upset. The childish behavior needs to stop, from both sides. You know what? Put it down. Let's try to come together and move forward. There are issues facing this town that we need to address."

He mentioned a desire to rewrite the town plan and attract economic development.

John Bushee, who is a member of multiple town boards and the Economic Development Committee, thanked the Select Board, saying they deserved a round of applause.

"Most of the complaints I've seen in those emails were directed at me, and how to get me off those boards," he said. "I'm willing to keep working. I'm hoping that this board can do something about this stuff that's been happening."

Donna Lauzon read a lengthy statement about the content of an email she said was written by Walker, in which, she said, he quotes military doctrine to "honor and understand the enemy intimately."

"My question is who is the enemy?" she asked. "This disruption of the Pownal town government is not the fault of Pownal citizens."

"Is it appropriate for those in public office to be using town time, and town resources, to trash 'enemy' citizens?" she asked.

She asked that the board consult with counsel and "render corrective action" immediately, and also recommended that going forward, all town business require the use of an official town email.

"Hopefully we can move forward," she said. "Pownal can see some brighter days."

After Lauzon spoke, much of the audience applauded.

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


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