The St. Johnsbury Saga, Part 1: When newcomers came to town and rankled the ruling elite

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Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political columnist. This story about St. Johnsbury politics is the first of a four-part series.

The town of St. Johnsbury is trying to hire a town manager, so naturally it ….

Wait. The preceding is open to debate. In the view of many a St. Johnsburyite, the town has been doing its best to avoid hiring a new manager. So let’s start again.

The town of St. Johnsbury has not had a town manager since April. In its seemingly sporadic effort to hire one, the town government recently posted an advertisement for the position on its website.

Like most such ads, this one described the job’s duties and responsibilities, and the salary and benefits offered. Unlike most such ads, this one included the following sentence: “The Town of St. Johnsbury cannot guarantee long-term employment due to pending legal litigation.”

In other words, whoever takes this job might find him/her-self back on the street at a moment’s notice. Not a typical municipal situation.

But that’s St. J these days, and “not a typical municipal situation” would be putting it mildly.

“We’re in a time of upheaval right now,” is the way Selectman Kevin Oddy put it.

“This whole town is a mess,” said one interested citizen, who like many others in town did not want to be identified.

Messes, of course, are in the eye of the beholder. But beholding what has been going on in the Northeast Kingdom’s biggest town is not easy. Forget for a moment that business of not having a town manager for almost nine months, and consider this very partial list of unusual if not bizarre occurrences:

·      The sudden resignation of a long-serving, highly regarded town manager;
·       the abrupt dismissal of his successor;
·       the board chair’s off-again, on-again interest in becoming the new town manager himself;
·       the reading of a scathing attack on the board chair by the vice chair sitting next to him.

And remember, that’s a very incomplete list. It doesn’t include the two lawsuits pending against the town, one of which explains that strange sentence in the want ad. It doesn’t include the board’s puzzling vote to promote a town worker to the position of interim town manager pending approval of a contract which mysteriously has never appeared. Nor does it include the abrupt dismissal of the economic development director who soon found himself the subject of a federal criminal investigation.

No charges were filed. No crime, it seems, was committed.

But actual crime could end up being the only offense not committed in what may be called The St. Johnsbury Follies, a continuing tragicomedy that defies description in mere news stories. These intertwined conflicts – more of culture and class than of conventional politics – are a fit subject for a sprawling novel.

Or even – despite the absence of sex or violence – a full-blown Hollywood movie. Among the dramatis personae: an ex-Marine small businessman with either an admirable devotion to duty or a lust for power (or both?); a former top official of Major League Baseball who opted for the serenity (hah!) of the Northeast Kingdom;  several lawyers; and just possibly, it turns out, a double-agent loyal first to one antagonist, then the other, or perhaps never to either.

Oh, and a Lady. Not a living female but a small, graceful statue adorning a roadside park, the repair and improvement of which have been the subjects of innumerable contract disputes and select board meeting controversies.

In one sense, the story begins in 2010, soon after a new, energetic and determined majority took control of the select board, and Town Manager Mike Welch resigned.

Welch

Or, in the view of many townfolks, was forced out, and though Welch himself will not confirm that analysis, he doesn’t firmly deny it, either.

“I certainly was committed to the town and believed in … the select boards we’ve had in the past,” he said, indicating that even if he had not been forced out, he decided that he did not want to work with the new board majority.

Even before Welch quit, the economic development director’s job had been abolished and the zoning administrator resigned after the position was downgraded. It wasn’t long before several other senior town officials – the police chief, the fire chief, the assistant clerk, and more – were  forced out of office or resigned or abruptly retired. Since then, town government has not been a happy camp.

But in the view of some town residents, the story begins much earlier, “back to the 1870s,” one said. Like many Vermont towns, local politics and government in St. J has been dominated by a small elite of affluent, public-spirited citizens. Late in the 19th century, it was the Fairbanks family and the top executives of their scale-manufacturing company. More recently, several senior officials of the EVH Weidmann electrical technology company have served on the select board.

Under this supremacy of the elites, town government was neither flawless nor innovative. St Johnsbury has never figured out how to exploit its natural and social advantages – the Passumpsic River waterfront, the Athenaeum library, the prestigious St. Johnsbury Academy, Catamount Arts, the intersection of two interstate highways – which together could make it a regional Mecca for shopping, recreation and culture. Getting there would require more energy and vision than the establishment leaders seem to have.

For all its flaws, though, St J’s town government was reliable. It was competent. As traditional Vermont Republicans, the establishment leaders controlled spending enough to keep property taxes from shooting up. For decades, public life in St. Johnsbury may not have been exciting, but it was stable.

But in retrospect, it was also ripe for – perhaps even asking for – comeuppance. Elites tend to foster resentment among … well, among everybody else, who at some point may start to feel not only that they are left out, but that they are being ignored.

Enter Jim Rust.

Raised mostly in Massachusetts, Rust, now 51, said he came to St. Johnsbury, his wife’s home turf, in 1993 after ending a 10-year stint in the Marines, which included service in the 1990-1991 Gulf War. He got a job as a clerk in a Cumberland Farms store and a few years later was its northern Vermont supervisor. But when the company offered him a promotion that would have required him to leave town, he  decided to stay. He and his wife started a business, Pettyco Junction, a gas station/convenience store/cafe at the intersection of Routes 2 and 18, close to an entrance to Interstate 93.

The business appears to be prospering, but it’s clear that prosperity alone is not enough for Rust. He wanted something more, and though he was prospering, he didn’t think the establishment that ran the town government was listening to him or people like him. He would go to select board meetings, where, he said, he “witnessed a lot of times where folks were not permitted to speak.” He was appointed to the Zoning Board of Adjustment in 1996, and the more he learned about town government, the less he liked the way it was being run.

In 2008, he was elected to the select board, where he found himself regularly outvoted by an establishment old guard.

“There were lots of 4-to-1 votes,” he said. He was the dissenter, and the more he dissented the more he became convinced that “the people weren’t being heard enough.”

So he and some like-minded folks went to work to get those people heard. According to a several longtime residents and at least one former town official, they had the help of Nancy Cohen, a politically active resident who has regularly attended select board and school board meetings and frequently writes letters to the editor of the Caledonian-Record newspaper.

Cohen, considered by many to be a political follower of the Tea Party, once suggested that the town clerk had surreptitiously spirited away some ballots in a close election for the state Legislature, and mailed them off in a package. The package turned out to have contained her granddaughter’s “security pillow” the little girl had left behind on a visit.

Cohen did not return messages left on her home answering system.

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According to these sources, Cohen and Rust would often meet early in the morning for breakfast at Rust’s Pettyco Junction, often joined by Rodney Lamotte and Bernard Timson, who owns a self-storage business across the street from the café.

“They spent a lot of time and a lot of energy creating controversy out of whole cloth,” said one. One target of their criticism was the Jay-Lyn Fund, which was using federal grants to make loans to small businesses in town. That fund’s activities were part of the criminal investigation that recently concluded with no charges filed.

Rust and his allies were the outsiders against the insiders and Rust must have been at least partly right in his conviction that an unrepresentative minority was dominating the town, because in 2010  Lamotte and Timson defeated two establishment board members. It was, even in the view of a St. J resident who voted the other way, “a people’s revolution,” and a successful one.

All of a sudden, Rust was in the majority, and the new majority moved immediately to shake things up. They started by getting rid of the economic development department and its director, Joel Schwartz.

After that, came the deluge.

Editor’s note: An incorrect draft of this story was originally posted. The correct story updated with additional information was published at 8:51 a.m.

Jon Margolis

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