DERBY - "Other business" turned into a tense and sometimes heated discussion at Monday's Derby Select Board meeting as board member Karen Jenne came under fire by board chairman Brian Smith and Derby Line Village Trustee Perry Hunt. Jenne serves as the village clerk for Derby Line as well as a member of the Derby Select Board.
In an unheard of move, Hunt appeared before the board to discuss concerns regarding an employee/elected official, whom he did not name. Smith then added his concerns to the mix despite the fact that the subject of the conversation had not been identified, giving the impression that Hunt and Smith had discussed the matter prior to the meeting. When Jenne asked whom they were talking about, she quickly learned that the discussion was about her.
Jenne later said she was upset by the "other business" discussion and felt she had been "ambushed." Under state law, when an employee is subject to a performance review or evaluation, he or she has a right to notice of the proceedings, to respond to the allegations and to have an attorney present, none of which happened in this instance because the matter came up under "other business."
Some citizens who were present quickly rose to Jenne's defense and questioned whether the proceeding was allowed given the lack of notice and the nature of the discussion. At one point, select board member Beula-Jean Shattuck suggested the board "not go on a witch hunt," a sentiment that was later echoed by resident Vicky Lewis.
The next day, Rep. Lynn Batchelor of Derby, who had attended the meeting, said, “There’s no more devoted employee for the Village of Derby Line or the Town of Derby than Karen Jenne.”
Several times during the beginning of the discussion, various members of the board stated that the matter should be in executive session, but no one made a motion to do so or to consult Jenne on whether she would have wanted the matter to be private. Instead, select board member Laura Dolgin joined in by offering a surveillance video, downloaded on her computer, which purported to show Jenne engaged in some kind of questionable behavior.
According to one board member, that video had originally been in the possession of Smith and had been shown to other board members prior to turning up on Dolgin's computer at the meeting.
The town surveillance video depicted Jenne walking into a hallway of the town offices sometime between 6:30 and 7 PM, accompanied by a friend, and checking public notices on the bulletin board. Other than being in the offices, to which Jenne has a key and right of access, the only complaint was that she had someone with her who otherwise would not have had the right to be there, thereby showing "preferential treatment," according to Dolgin.
Further discussion about whether or not Jenne's actions amounted to a problem, with Jenne strongly objecting, lead to observations by Jenne and Lewis that Chairman Smith had engaged in exactly the same behavior by inviting wind developers into a "private meeting" in the town offices after hours without the knowledge of or notice to other members of the board.
Smith held a second "private meeting" at the Cow Palace restaurant in Derby, to which he had invited a real estate developer and various legislators to discuss bringing a Wal-Mart to Derby.
Smith, when pressured, stated, "I guess she's as guilty as I was. Wouldn't you say so?"
Lewis responded with, "But according to you, Brian, you weren't guilty; you were well within your realm."
Later, Smith stated, "I don't think we need to take any action on this."
Hunt, in his unwarned presentation to the board, indicated Jenne had engaged in inappropriate behavior by accessing a computer at her village offices for personal use and by allowing that same friend to be in the office, observing her use of the computer, when she did so.
"It's my office," Jenne said.
Despite Hunt's assertion that Jenne may have engaged in some inappropriate or unethical behavior, Jenne's use of the computer and of having someone else present who was not a citizen of Derby Line were the only details provided to the Derby Select Board.
Jenne defended her actions by asserting that she had a right to be in the buildings and had not engaged in any wrong doing, and she argued that non-residents regularly were permitted in municipal offices. Smith responded by reading portions of Vermont's Sunshine Law, which states that the public has a right to access public records "during normal business hours."
The law does not provide that the public is forbidden to access public information at any other time, but rather guarantees the right of the public to obtain public records and information during reasonable times. Nor does the law specify when "normal business hours" occur, since many town and village clerks in Vermont set hours by appointment and keep town records in their homes.
In a booklet entitled "Municipal Law Basics" authored by former Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz and published in 2009, a select board "may not regulate how another official performs his/her duties" and may not impose "arbitrary restrictions." The same booklet notes that public officials are allowed to have political and personal agendas and, in fact, often campaign on those agendas when running for public office, but that a personal agenda does not constitute a conflict of interest for a board member.
In this case, Jenne had been heavily criticized for her opposition to the Derby Line wind project, which had been strongly supported by Brian Smith.
Information for this article was taken from a public recording of the meeting and from reference to the Markowitz report.