August 29, 2014

More charges possible in sexual abuse case

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10-year-old girl was allegedly molested for years

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

Authorities continue to investigate the circumstances surrounding the alleged long-term sexual assault of a Williston girl, and more charges in connection with the case are possible.

Mark Hulett, 34, of Williston, was arraigned last week on two counts of aggravated sexual assault and one count of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child. He pleaded innocent to the charges. The assault charges carry potential life sentences.

Hulett is accused of having an ongoing sexual relationship with the girl, a daughter of a family friend. The girl is now 10 years old. Hulett, a 10-year member of the Williston Fire Department, was arrested last week a few hours after departing a fire department training session.

Hulett subsequently admitted to police that he had repeated sexual contact with the girl over the past two to three years, according to court documents. The girl did not disclose to police inappropriate contact with Hulett.

Hulett was being held without bail in Chittenden Correctional Facility, though he had a hearing last week and the court was still considering as of Tuesday whether to set bail.

Law enforcement officials are gathering information on Hulett’s relationship with the girl, including interviews with neighbors. Nicole Andreson, the Chittenden County state’s attorney prosecuting the case, said she would determine whether to seek the maximum life sentences for Hulett after the investigation was complete.

The investigation is not limited to the relationship between Hulett and the girl.

Detective Sgt. Bruce Bovat, director of the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations, said law enforcement officials also continue to look into allegations that the girl was sexually assaulted by one of Hulett’s friends. Hulett and his friend were investigated in 2003 for alleged sexual abuse of the girl. Bovat said CUSI and the state Department for Children and Families investigated that case after one of the girl’s teachers made a report to authorities based on something the girl had said at school.

Probable cause was not found for arresting either man, according to court documents. Bovat said authorities are now investigating the other man again, though no charges had been filed as of late Monday afternoon .

Court documents indicate that a relative of the girl told police that she had heard that Hulett’s friend “had previously forced himself” on her. The court records include graphic details that the relative said the girl had reported to her about the incident.

She told the relative that Hulett’s friend had threatened to kill her and her family if she told anyone about the alleged assault, according to court documents.

Court records also raised the possibility that Hulett might have sexually assaulted one of the girl’s friends. Hulett denied the suggestion, according to court records. “There has been nothing that indicates any wrongdoing,” with another girl, Bovat said.

Hulett was a close friend of the girl’s family and stayed at their house frequently. She referred to him as her “uncle.”

The girl’s father told police that he and his wife often found Hulett sleeping in the same bed as the girl, but they did not halt the practice, court records say.

The parents also told police they had seen Hulett and the girl whispering together in the bathroom and holding hands in the family’s living room, the court records say. Hulett often picked the girl up from school and babysat for her.

Hulett’s close relationship with the girl continued even after he was investigated in 2003 amid allegations that he had sexually abused the girl.

Andreson said sexual offenders often develop close relationships with the families of their victims, gaining their confidence. The possibility of a sexual relationship does not enter their minds.

In fact, the parents told investigators that the close relationship between their daughter and Hulett had not concerned them “until now,” according to court records.

“It’s not uncommon for the offender to be known to a victim’s parents,” Andreson said. “It is an even greater betrayal when (the offender) is someone they know and trust.”

Bovat described the girl’s parents as being “emotional,” “in disbelief and shock,” and “very upset.” The Observer is withholding the names of the parents to protect the identity of the girl.

Bovat said the parents initially reported the suspected abuse to law enforcement officials earlier this month. The girl had told a cousin that she had a sexual relationship with Hulett. The cousin informed another of the girl’s relatives, who then told the parents.

The parents’ willingness to allow Hulett such intimate access to their daughter raises questions about their judgment, but authorities are not saying whether the parents were criminally negligent or simply too trusting of Hulett.

Bovat did not rule out the possibility that the girl’s parents would be charged.

“That’s ongoing,” Bovat said. “They are currently helping us. There are a lot of things that need to be looked into, but I can’t give a yes or no on that.”

Bovat said the state’s Department for Children and Families was also investigating the circumstances of the alleged sexual assault. Tracey Brown, a DCF investigator who interviewed the girl with Bovat earlier this month, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Andreson declined to answer questions about the girl’s parents.

“I don’t want to comment on that right now,” Andreson said. “Right now, our principal focus is on Mr. Hulett and holding him accountable for what we believe are criminal and horrible actions against this young girl.”

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Little League scoreboard cleared to seek town permit

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By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

It remains unclear whether the Williston Little League will get an electronic scoreboard at Community Park. But the project scored a point with the town on Monday.

The Williston Selectboard agreed to allow the proposal to move forward to the formal application process. The board had to sign off on the application because the town has a licensing agreement with the Williston School District to use the field.

The Selectboard declined to express either support or opposition to the scoreboard proposal, and specifically avoided forming a formal opinion on potential sponsorship of the device by Coca-Cola.

Mike Healey, a member of the Williston Little League Board of Directors, told the board in March that representatives from the soft drink company had offered to purchase an electronic scoreboard for Community Park. Healey estimated the scoreboard would cost $10,000.

However, D.K. Johnston, the town’s zoning administrator, has said the municipal zoning regulations do not allow that type of advertising in the Historic Village District. He believes an electronic scoreboard without advertising would comply with the regulations.

In a memo to the Selectboard, the Recreation Committee expressed support for an electronic scoreboard at the park, but not if it included advertising.

“The Recreation Committee is committed to maintaining the aesthetic character of the Community Park and does not support the installation of a scoreboard which includes advertising,” the memo read.

Last month, Williston Little League President Dennis Lalancette expressed frustration at the regulatory obstacles to acquiring the scoreboard. He said the Community Park field is located well away from traffic and the advertising could not be seen from the road. He also said the field is located in the Historic District by geography, but not by character.

“It all seems somewhat inane,” Lalancette said.

At Monday night’s meeting, Selectboard member Andy Mikell wondered if it was appropriate to forbid advertising on the scoreboard. He pointed out that ads are common at baseball fields and asked if the town’s rules would prevent the league from acquiring the device.

“It’s hard enough for them to buy balls and caps,” he said. “Their dollars are limited. As long as it’s tastefully done, then I think we should let them do whatever they want.”

Advertising has been a routine sight at baseball fields, both professional and amateur, for decades. It often helps Little Leagues generate revenue. For instance, two fields at Schifilliti Park in the New North End of Burlington have electronic scoreboards. One includes logos for Coca-Cola, and another has a logo for Burlington Local 3044, a union representing firefighters.

Selectboard Chairwoman Ginny Lyons said she was pleased with the concept of an electronic scoreboard at the park, but believed that any sponsorship needed to come from a local business.

“I’m very resistant to having a multinational corporate sponsor for the Little League,” Lyons said.

Selectboard member Jeff Fehrs said he had held the same concerns before remembering the widespread community sponsorship of Skip Farrell of Pepsi-Cola Bottling of Burlington. Although it is a local business, its sponsorship advertises Pepsi, he said.

Healey told the Selectboard in March that the Little League would attempt to raise the money to purchase the scoreboard if the town would not allow sponsorship for it, though it could prove difficult for the league to find the funding.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said it was uncertain what path the scoreboard would take through the regulatory process. The Development Review Board likely will review the proposal.

Bill Sheedy, chairman of the Development Review Board, said the board would not “look the other way” and make an exception to the regulations to allow for sponsorship on the scoreboard.

“The DRB doesn’t have any latitude,” said Sheedy, who is a Little League coach. “We work with whatever regulations the Planning Commission provides. We have no choice.”

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Jean Ankeney, senator and activist, dies at age 83

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By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Former state Sen. Jean Ankeney, a stalwart liberal who co-authored Vermont’s landmark education funding reform law, died Saturday. She was 83.

Ankeney became ill about six weeks ago, said her daughter, Chrys Ankeney Smiley. Ten days before she died, doctors found that she had a form of lung cancer. She died late Saturday night with members of her immediate family at her bedside.

Ankeney worked tirelessly for less fortunate people, both as a legislator and in her personal life, said family, friends and Senate colleagues.

“For everything Jean did, it came down to taking care of the kids, taking care of the poor, taking care of people who needed taking care of,” said Sen. Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille County, who was first elected to the Senate along with Ankeney in 1992.

Reached at her mother’s St. George home, Smiley remembered Ankeney as a woman who passionately supported many causes, sometimes long before they were widely popular.

“She always acted on her beliefs,” Smiley said. “As she once said to me ‘my life is my prayer.’”

Ankeney was born March 29, 1922 while her missionary parents were in China. She grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb.

Ankeney raised three children in Cleveland, before moving to Vermont in 1975. She worked for numerous liberal causes and served as chapter president for Common Cause before running for the state Senate in 1992. She was re-elected to four more terms before finally stepping down in 2002.

Ankeney was among the Vermont Senate’s most liberal members. She supported gun control, early childhood programs and universal health care.

But it was perhaps on education funding that she made her biggest mark. She was one of the authors of Act 60, the state’s controversial education funding reform. The law required property tax-rich “gold towns” — Williston was among them — to pay into a pool that was used to fund schools in less affluent towns.

The measure prompted outcries from the gold towns while being lauded by towns with fewer means to educate their children. The law was later superceded by Act 68, but a mechanism to equalize education funding among school districts remains in place.

Bartlett said Ankeney’s support for Act 60 came not out of concerns about property tax rates. Instead, Bartlett said, “she thought every child deserved an adequate education.”

Ankeney was unwavering in her support for Act 60 even after other politicians switched positions on the measure. Bartlett said her Senate colleague was equally unwavering in her support for other causes she believed in.

“If something cost $20 million, and it got only $2 million in funding, she’d be back the next week asking ‘where’s the other $18 milllion?’” Bartlett said.

Yet Ankeney’s strong views were leavened by a personal charm and modesty, Bartlett said, so she seldom provoked the kind of animosity often seen among political opponents.

“She was a lady,” Bartlett said. “There are lots of women, but almost no ladies left anymore.”

Ankeney’s activism for liberal causes and commitment to social justice extended far beyond the Statehouse in Montpelier. During her years in Cleveland, she helped bring a library for children to a nearby underprivileged neighborhood and advocated for sex education in public schools, Smiley said.

Over the years, Ankeney worked as a public health nurse nurse, a teacher and a teacher’s trainer. She also served on numerous local advisory boards and committees.

Friends fondly recalled her St. George homestead as a gathering place for people from all walks of life.

“I loved to go out there,” said Nancy Williams, who knew Ankeney in Cleveland before she relocated to the Burlington area years after Ankeney moved to Vermont. “I met a lot of people through her.”

Fran Stoddard, a Williston resident who hosts two Vermont Public Television shows, “Profile” and “Vital Signs,” also knew Ankeney in her Cleveland days. Stoddard was a school-age friend of Ankeney’s daughter, Cynthia, before becoming friends with Ankeney after moving here.

“Jean was an inspiration to me because she was so committed and focused on causes and impassioned politically,” Stoddard said.

Ankeney is survived by her son, Jay Ankeney Jr., of Manhattan Beach, Calif.; daughters Smiley and Cynthia Jean Ankeney Bingham of Ipswich, Mass.; and three grandchildren, Jordon Michael Smiley, Dana Grace Bingham and Christian Hunter Bingham.

A memorial service will be held on Sunday, May 22 from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Ankeney’s St. George home.

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DEVELOPMENT AND GROWTH TALK RENEWED IN ST. GEORGE

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By Mal Boright
Correspondent

It has been said that before walking the walk one must talk the talk.

In St. George last week, the talking about future development and growth around the 84-acre town center got off to a spirited start. And apparently, according to one Development Review Board member, there will be much more talking.

Some 30 residents weighed in on the future of the town center at the May 5 meeting at the town office, and, according to Scott Baker of the DRB, the session was a good start to a series of community discussions that could go on for some time.

‘I think it was productive,” Baker said of the meeting. “As to what happens next? Residents need to make some fundamental decisions about growth. Do we want business, buildings or have the land remain open.”

Baker believes growth is inevitable for the little town of 715 people and that, to him, raises the ultimate question.

“Since growth is inevitable,” he said. “The question then becomes can we steer development in a way to accommodate the growth.”

Baker warned that if St. George does not provide development for the growth, then the development will occur outside the town.

‘Our town is at the crossroads,” he said.

Baker said the next steps in the discussion process will be more scheduled meetings with residents and possible surveys in an effort to get opinions on the table.

The opinions were flowing at the May 5 meeting which DRB Chair Pam Moreau opened by stating,” We know development is going to come to St. George. We want to take a pro-active position, certainly in terms of figuring out how all uses will fit together.”

She called the town center a vital part of the municipal plan.

Diane Gayer of the Vermont Design Institute, a non-profit organization that works with towns on design projects, called for an initial “visionary process that includes social discussions, not just planning discussions.”

Gayer recalled similar projects with other towns such as Morrisville, Middlesex and Shoreham. She praises St. George for having a plan from 1974, calling it a great foundation.

Gayer was also optimistic that St. George could find municipal planning grant money in the $8,000 to $10,000 range to help with the process.

Zoning Administrator Dick Ward was less sanguine about attracting grants, noting, “Our problem is that we are in Chittenden County. We have to compete with South Burlington, Winooski and Burlington. (Grant) Reviewers do not see growth problems in St. George.”

Gayer agreed that such competition is tough, but had other suggestions for applications including to the Preservation Trust of Vermont.

Mindful that many in the room were very aware of past failures to achieve consensus on the development question, Gayer recommended a process to determine “what everybody wants to see and then establish some operating guidelines with some principles.”

One question to Gayer concerned new business in a town and whether these new firms bring “economic value to the community?”

“My understanding is that the tax benefits are pretty iffy,” Gayer responded.

“I agree with the spirit of the committee to become pro-active,” said Tom Buck. “Much of what has happened was without community participation and that has been aggravating to me. Twice before, a lack of consensus has been the downfall of a visionary plan. We need to get beyond that blockage.”

“You need a density of folks to implement a village development,” Gayer pointed out.

“You need to get more people involved and out of that additional leadership will develop.”

Those at the meeting were more than happy to add their two cents.

Steve Faust said, “The question should be what is the best use. I don’t want to say no to business and I don’t want to say yes to business.”

Norm Burnett, owner of Rocky Ridge Golf Course, said he would love to see more business “helping me out,” in St. George.

Whether that will be a convenience store-gasoline station as proposed by developers Charles and Joseph Handy on land they own at the town center was not addressed, even though the proposal was the proverbial elephant in the room.

The Handys’ proposal for a 4,340-square foot convenience store with six gasoline pump islands is before the DRB.

“Some very good questions were raised tonight,” said meeting moderator Marie Mastro in concluding the session. “St. George is next to the interstate and next door to the Williston we all know and love. I would love to come in here and shut it down so no one else comes in. That is not about to happen.”

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Condo damaged in fire

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Pet cat dies in Tuesday incident

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

An afternoon fire caused interior damage to a Williston condominium this week, but firefighters kept it from spreading to adjoining units.

No person was injured in the fire, which occurred at 425 Westview Circle. However, a pet cat died of smoke inhalation, despite efforts to revive it with an oxygen mask.

A neighbor spotted smoke coming from a second-floor bedroom window of the condominium on Tuesday. She called 911. Williston and Essex Junction firefighters arrived at the scene at approximately 3:30 p.m. Westview Circle is located close to the boundary between Williston and Essex Junction.

The female occupant of the condo was running errands at the time of the fire. According to municipal records, the condominium is owned by Jeffrey Jimmo, but he rents the unit out.

Firefighters found the fire was burning in the downstairs of the condo and was strongest in the rear of the building, according to Williston Fire Chief Ken Morton. When firefighters arrived, smoke filled the downstairs and was being ventilated up the flight of stairs and out the second-floor window that had been left open.

Firefighters entered the condo and knocked the fire down with water. Windows were also broken open to further ventilate the smoke. An Essex Junction ladder truck was used to access the upstairs windows.

The Westview Circle neighborhood is intimately organized with units laid out close to each other. Several neighbors stood in their front yards and watched the firefighters at work.

Morton said the fire did not “flash over,” meaning flames did not flash over the entire confined area downstairs. Damage to the interior of the condo was significant, but would have been much worse if flash over had occurred. Morton said the fire was controlled relatively quickly.

“It was a free burning fire, but it was pretty cut and dry,” Morton said. “We got in and got after it so it didn’t become a big fire.”

Morton said the fire did not spread to the adjoining units in part because of the strength of the sheet rock walls between them. He said adjoining units did receive some smoke damage.

After controlling the fire, firefighters searched for the pet cat inside. They found it, and Williston rescue workers used an oxygen mask designed for pets. The cat was then rushed to a nearby veterinarian. However, it did not recover.

Morton said the cause of the fire remains under investigation, though he suspects it was electrical in origin.

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Budget constraints curtail road construction projects

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Road salt use melts available funding

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

There will be fewer of the perennial road paving projects in Williston this summer because of a budget overrun created by an icy winter.

Public Works Director Neil Boyden said the department ran approximately $18,000 over budget on salt costs this past winter. Two large ice storms that created exceptionally slippery roads were the main culprits.

“That’s a lot to go over for just an $80,000 budget,” Boyden said.

In order to make up for the overrun, Boyden said, summer road maintenance projects will be cut back to keep the department’s budget in line.

Road paving projects that are likely to make the cut and be completed this construction season include Van Sicklen Road (Muddy Brook to South Brownell Road), Blair Park Road (North Meadow Road to Paul Street), Old Stage Road (Turtle Pond to Mountain View Road) and Chamberlin Lane (Isham Circle to Brennan Woods Drive).

A one-mile section of Mountain View Road between Ledgewood Drive and North Williston Road remains a question mark.

Boyden said the town hopes to start paving on Van Sicklen Road this week. The Selectboard recently approved a series of traffic-calming measures for the Williston side of the road, and Boyden said the paving would probably enable the calming work to be completed later this summer.

Boyden said paving projects that will likely not be completed this summer include the Town Hall parking lot and a stretch of Shunpike Road.

Others projects that will apparently be postponed until next construction season include Stirrup Circle and a connecting stretch on Morgan Parkway from Stirrup Circle to Vermont Route 2A. Both paving jobs will require a great deal of preparatory work before paving occurs, Boyden said.

 

Bike path progress

Boyden said the town has hopes to make progress on expanding the network of bike paths and sidewalks.

The main project for the summer will be new sidewalks in the Blair Park area. In June, Boyden expects a section of sidewalk to be constructed that runs along U.S. Route 2 from Taft Corners to Blair Park Road. A sidewalk spur will also be constructed from U.S. Route 2 along Helena Drive to Vermont Route 2A, connecting with the existing sidewalk.

Also, in the early stages of the summer, a stretch of sidewalk running a few hundred feet will be built on Old Stage Road near Adams Farm Market.

Boyden estimated it would likely be between a year and 18 months before construction could begin on a bike path planned for Mountain View Road. Boyden said the town continues to gather easements from property owners along the road. Town officials have also met with specialists to review the project’s impact on wetlands.

Some property owners along the bike path route have been reluctant to grant easements that will allow the path to cross their properties. “There’s only so much we can do if people aren’t willing to transfer an easement,” Boyden said.

The work on Mountain View Road could take longer than the 18-month estimate if some property owners do not grant easements and the town is forced to invoke imminent domain. In that case, the town would have to prove the necessity of the bike path and settle on compensation amounts for the property owners.

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Board

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Town manager erased e-mail detailing discussion

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

The Williston Selectboard ignored a request from the Observer for e-mail records that might have shed light on the board’s deliberations over a recent dog bite complaint.

An e-mail message last week from the Observer to Selectboard members asking for copies of the correspondence went unanswered. When asked in person for his records of the e-mail messages, Town Manager Rick McGuire said he had erased the messages shortly after they had arrived in his computer inbox at Town Hall because he had categorized them as privileged. McGuire said he would not have turned over the correspondence even if he had not erased them.

Selectboard Chairwoman Ginny Lyons said in a telephone interview that the e-mail correspondence was not public record because the board was in deliberative session. State law exempts from the public records law records or internal materials prepared for the deliberations of a public agency acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, which the Selectboard was doing presiding over the dog bite complaint. It is one of 29 exemptions in the public records law.

Vermont Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz agreed with the town’s assertion that the e-mails were privileged under Vermont law. However, Markowitz said the Selectboard’s failure to respond to the Observer’s request for the records “was a sloppy violation of the technical terms of the law.”

State law requires a custodian of a record to deny in writing a request for a record he or she believes to be exempt within two business days of the request.

Ross Connelly, the publisher of the Hardwick Gazette and a member of the Vermont Press Association Board of Directors, questioned whether the town and Markowitz’s reading of the law follows the presumption of openness required by Vermont’s public records law.

State law says records pertinent to litigation to which the public agency is a party of record should be available upon the termination of the litigation. Connelly said it would make sense that records from deliberative sessions follow the same rule.

“Exchanging e-mails with each other to arrive at a decision in deliberative session, I think they can do that,” Connelly said. “I question whether it would remain privileged after the decision is made public and there is no longer any need for (the e-mails) to be privileged.”

Robert Hemley, a Burlington attorney who practices First Amendment law, declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but said the state’s public records law is not always clear.

“It’s a complex matter,” Hemley said. “These analyses of access to public records and public meetings are often complex and driven by the particular facts.”

McGuire has compared the Selectboard’s use of e-mail in deliberations to the correspondence among a panel of judges considering a case behind closed doors.

“It actually makes complete sense,” McGuire said. “A deliberation amounts to a conversation among Selectboard members. It could have taken place at the meeting, over the telephone or, in this case, through e-mail.”

The Selectboard held a hearing on the dog bite complaint on April 25. Brooks McArthur, a Williston resident, had filed the complaint after an alleged attack by a German shepherd owned by his neighbor, Michelle LeBlanc.

At the end of the hearing, the board decided to go into deliberative session to discuss the case. The board eventually decided to fine LeBlanc $500.

The Selectboard, however, did not issue a decision that night. Instead, Selectboard member Andy Mikell wrote a draft of a decision and board members revised the draft through e-mail over the course of the subsequent week. The Observer sought copies of those e-mails.

The Selectboard is not required to go into deliberative session when serving as a quasi-judicial board, but Lyons and Selectboard member Jeff Fehrs said there was never any debate about whether the board would use a closed session.

“I think it’s a very good process,” Fehrs said. “It’s very helpful to hear what others on the Selectboard think and to hear what their concerns are without being grilled by someone in the public or being stared at.”

The decision to use e-mail kept the deliberative session open until the release of the written decision on April 29. The use of e-mail by a governing board to make a decision is a violation of the open meeting laws, except in the case of deliberative sessions, according to a recent edition of the Opinions newsletter produced by Markowitz’s office.

McGuire said Wednesday morning he had received informal indications LeBlanc might appeal the Selectboard’s decision. LeBlanc asked for materials used to craft the Selectboard’s decision, but she did not seek the e-mail correspondence.

Lyons seemed surprised by the Observer’s interest in the e-mails, saying little of substance was discussed.

“The process here was pretty benign,” she said. “There’s no big secret.”

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Condo damaged in fire

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By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

An afternoon fire caused interior damage to a Williston condominium this week, but firefighters kept it from spreading to adjoining units.

No person was injured in the fire, which occurred at 425 Westview Circle. However, a pet cat died of smoke inhalation, despite efforts to revive it with an oxygen mask.

A neighbor spotted smoke coming from a second-floor bedroom window of the condominium on Tuesday. She called 911. Williston and Essex Junction firefighters arrived at the scene at approximately 3:30 p.m. Westview Circle is located close to the boundary between Williston and Essex Junction.

The female occupant of the condo was running errands at the time of the fire. According to municipal records, the condominium is owned by Jeffrey Jimmo, but he rents the unit out.

Firefighters found the fire was burning in the downstairs of the condo and was strongest in the rear of the building, according to Williston Fire Chief Ken Morton. When firefighters arrived, smoke filled the downstairs and was being ventilated up the flight of stairs and out the second-floor window that had been left open.

Firefighters entered the condo and knocked the fire down with water. Windows were also broken open to further ventilate the smoke. An Essex Junction ladder truck was used to access the upstairs windows.

The Westview Circle neighborhood is intimately organized with units laid out close to each other. Several neighbors stood in their front yards and watched the firefighters at work.

Morton said the fire did not “flash over,” meaning flames did not flash over the entire confined area downstairs. Damage to the interior of the condo was significant, but would have been much worse if flash over had occurred. Morton said the fire was controlled relatively quickly.

“It was a free burning fire, but it was pretty cut and dry,” Morton said. “We got in and got after it so it didn’t become a big fire.”

Morton said the fire did not spread to the adjoining units in part because of the strength of the sheet rock walls between them. He said adjoining units did receive some smoke damage.

After controlling the fire, firefighters searched for the pet cat inside. They found it, and Williston rescue workers used an oxygen mask designed for pets. The cat was then rushed to a nearby veterinarian. However, it did not recover.

Morton said the cause of the fire remains under investigation, though he suspects it was electrical in origin.

[Read more...]

Budget constraints curtail road construction projects

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Road salt use melts available funding

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

There will be fewer of the perennial road paving projects in Williston this summer because of a budget overrun created by an icy winter.

Public Works Director Neil Boyden said the department ran approximately $18,000 over budget on salt costs this past winter. Two large ice storms that created exceptionally slippery roads were the main culprits.

“That’s a lot to go over for just an $80,000 budget,” Boyden said.

In order to make up for the overrun, Boyden said, summer road maintenance projects will be cut back to keep the department’s budget in line.

Road paving projects that are likely to make the cut and be completed this construction season include Van Sicklen Road (Muddy Brook to South Brownell Road), Blair Park Road (North Meadow Road to Paul Street), Old Stage Road (Turtle Pond to Mountain View Road) and Chamberlin Lane (Isham Circle to Brennan Woods Drive).

A one-mile section of Mountain View Road between Ledgewood Drive and North Williston Road remains a question mark.

Boyden said the town hopes to start paving on Van Sicklen Road this week. The Selectboard recently approved a series of traffic-calming measures for the Williston side of the road, and Boyden said the paving would probably enable the calming work to be completed later this summer.

Boyden said paving projects that will likely not be completed this summer include the Town Hall parking lot and a stretch of Shunpike Road.

Others projects that will apparently be postponed until next construction season include Stirrup Circle and a connecting stretch on Morgan Parkway from Stirrup Circle to Vermont Route 2A. Both paving jobs will require a great deal of preparatory work before paving occurs, Boyden said.

 

Bike path progress

Boyden said the town has hopes to make progress on expanding the network of bike paths and sidewalks.

The main project for the summer will be new sidewalks in the Blair Park area. In June, Boyden expects a section of sidewalk to be constructed that runs along U.S. Route 2 from Taft Corners to Blair Park Road. A sidewalk spur will also be constructed from U.S. Route 2 along Helena Drive to Vermont Route 2A, connecting with the existing sidewalk.

Also, in the early stages of the summer, a stretch of sidewalk running a few hundred feet will be built on Old Stage Road near Adams Farm Market.

Boyden estimated it would likely be between a year and 18 months before construction could begin on a bike path planned for Mountain View Road. Boyden said the town continues to gather easements from property owners along the road. Town officials have also met with specialists to review the project’s impact on wetlands.

Some property owners along the bike path route have been reluctant to grant easements that will allow the path to cross their properties. “There’s only so much we can do if people aren’t willing to transfer an easement,” Boyden said.

The work on Mountain View Road could take longer than the 18-month estimate if some property owners do not grant easements and the town is forced to invoke imminent domain. In that case, the town would have to prove the necessity of the bike path and settle on compensation amounts for the property owners.

[Read more...]

Board

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Town manager erased e-mail detailing discussion

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

The Williston Selectboard ignored a request from the Observer for e-mail records that might have shed light on the board’s deliberations over a recent dog bite complaint.

An e-mail message last week from the Observer to Selectboard members asking for copies of the correspondence went unanswered. When asked in person for his records of the e-mail messages, Town Manager Rick McGuire said he had erased the messages shortly after they had arrived in his computer inbox at Town Hall because he had categorized them as privileged. McGuire said he would not have turned over the correspondence even if he had not erased them.

Selectboard Chairwoman Ginny Lyons said in a telephone interview that the e-mail correspondence was not public record because the board was in deliberative session. State law exempts from the public records law records or internal materials prepared for the deliberations of a public agency acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, which the Selectboard was doing presiding over the dog bite complaint. It is one of 29 exemptions in the public records law.

Vermont Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz agreed with the town’s assertion that the e-mails were privileged under Vermont law. However, Markowitz said the Selectboard’s failure to respond to the Observer’s request for the records “was a sloppy violation of the technical terms of the law.”

State law requires a custodian of a record to deny in writing a request for a record he or she believes to be exempt within two business days of the request.

Ross Connelly, the publisher of the Hardwick Gazette and a member of the Vermont Press Association Board of Directors, questioned whether the town and Markowitz’s reading of the law follows the presumption of openness required by Vermont’s public records law.

State law says records pertinent to litigation to which the public agency is a party of record should be available upon the termination of the litigation. Connelly said it would make sense that records from deliberative sessions follow the same rule.

“Exchanging e-mails with each other to arrive at a decision in deliberative session, I think they can do that,” Connelly said. “I question whether it would remain privileged after the decision is made public and there is no longer any need for (the e-mails) to be privileged.”

Robert Hemley, a Burlington attorney who practices First Amendment law, declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but said the state’s public records law is not always clear.

“It’s a complex matter,” Hemley said. “These analyses of access to public records and public meetings are often complex and driven by the particular facts.”

McGuire has compared the Selectboard’s use of e-mail in deliberations to the correspondence among a panel of judges considering a case behind closed doors.

“It actually makes complete sense,” McGuire said. “A deliberation amounts to a conversation among Selectboard members. It could have taken place at the meeting, over the telephone or, in this case, through e-mail.”

The Selectboard held a hearing on the dog bite complaint on April 25. Brooks McArthur, a Williston resident, had filed the complaint after an alleged attack by a German shepherd owned by his neighbor, Michelle LeBlanc.

At the end of the hearing, the board decided to go into deliberative session to discuss the case. The board eventually decided to fine LeBlanc $500.

The Selectboard, however, did not issue a decision that night. Instead, Selectboard member Andy Mikell wrote a draft of a decision and board members revised the draft through e-mail over the course of the subsequent week. The Observer sought copies of those e-mails.

The Selectboard is not required to go into deliberative session when serving as a quasi-judicial board, but Lyons and Selectboard member Jeff Fehrs said there was never any debate about whether the board would use a closed session.

“I think it’s a very good process,” Fehrs said. “It’s very helpful to hear what others on the Selectboard think and to hear what their concerns are without being grilled by someone in the public or being stared at.”

The decision to use e-mail kept the deliberative session open until the release of the written decision on April 29. The use of e-mail by a governing board to make a decision is a violation of the open meeting laws, except in the case of deliberative sessions, according to a recent edition of the Opinions newsletter produced by Markowitz’s office.

McGuire said Wednesday morning he had received informal indications LeBlanc might appeal the Selectboard’s decision. LeBlanc asked for materials used to craft the Selectboard’s decision, but she did not seek the e-mail correspondence.

Lyons seemed surprised by the Observer’s interest in the e-mails, saying little of substance was discussed.

“The process here was pretty benign,” she said. “There’s no big secret.”

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