Fehrs relishes contrarian

Fellow members frustrated by his go-slow approach

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

Jeff Fehrs arrived a few minutes late to the July 25 Selectboard meeting. On the way to the semicircular table where his fellow board members sat, he shook his head with disappointment.

Fehrs’ customary seat is set away from the other board members, who typically gather at the head of the table, while Fehrs sits separated on their right. However, fellow board member Andy Mikell already occupied Fehrs’ chair, and Fehrs’ nameplate was at the head of the table, next to Chairwoman Ginny Lyons’ seat.

Fehrs settled reluctantly into his new place at the table and remarked on the prank. His fellow board members laughed good-naturedly.

Fehrs has grown accustomed to the seat he has held at board meetings for six years. It allows him to spread out his documents and to watch his fellow board members’ faces.

“I get a better sense of what they’re thinking,” he said. In addition, Fehrs acknowledged, the seat has some symbolic value. It sets him apart.

Fehrs has a distinctive style among Selectboard members. It’s not the Hawaiian shirts or the occasional flash of a small earring that brand him as different — though they do present a visual contrast with the other members. Instead, he stands apart because of his many questions, his desire to have lengthy discussions and his sometimes isolated views.

Those traits occasionally frustrate his fellow board members, but Fehrs’ tangents and study of the minutiae of topics can also steer the Selectboard in unforeseen and productive directions.

“Jeff has a different perspective and that’s definitely helpful,” said Terry Macaig, who sits on the other end of the table from Fehrs and who, appropriately, is the least voluble board member.

Macaig and Lyons both acknowledge growing occasionally frustrated with Fehrs’ discussions, but they make the identical addendum: “Jeff obviously has the town’s best interests at heart.”

Macaig notes that Fehrs comes equipped with copious research to each meeting. Lyons said she recognizes that he keeps folders on topics and is “very thorough and careful.”

It’s just that the thoroughness can equal slowness and redundancy.

“Sometimes, he delays things that are pretty much self-evident to me,” Macaig said. “The meetings might end up lasting longer than they need to because of it.”

He’s also stubborn, Lyons said, and can return to an issue or a point again and again.

“He’s not one to readily compromise,” Lyons said.

Fehrs said it “does not make him happy” to frustrate his fellow board members. However, when board members grow visibly irritated with his insistent probing of a topic, it never appears to deter him.

Fehrs, a methodical thinker, said he simply does not want to rush anything.

“If I’m not prepared to make a decision, then that’s an equally bad feeling for me,” Fehrs said.

Fehrs appears to often be motivated by a concern that the board might overlook something or miss an important angle. “Are we missing something?” and “I don’t understand this well enough” are among his frequent refrains.

“It’s not uncommon to see some small detail come back to haunt us — for it to turn into a loophole or into some unintended consequence,” Fehrs said. “I want to fully understand what we’re doing. Sometimes, I think the board makes decisions based just on the big picture aspect of something. But I think the devil’s in the details and we need to make sure we fully understand their impact.”

Lyons said Fehrs’ attention to detail keeps the board thinking of the long tentacles of any decision, because he is mindful of how one decision might affect another.

“He sees connections between everything, so one discussion might lead to 15 other topics,” Lyons said. “That can be very helpful sometimes, but we also don’t want to go too far afield — and sometimes we do. Sometimes the conversation gets prolonged when we need to move on.”

Fehrs argues that many of his questions are not solely targeted for his own understanding of an issue, but to make sure the rest of the Selectboard is considering a certain angle. He also frequently asks questions that appear to oppose his own view of a topic. He constantly asks for more information and different perspectives, particularly from town staff and the members of Williston’s myriad boards and committees.

“I hope it’s a way for the board and the public to understand what the range of things we could be doing is,” Fehrs said.

Mikell’s relatively new presence on the board has provided Fehrs with a kindred soul who also tends to step outside the consensus from time to time. In 2005, there have been eight board votes that were not unanimous. Fehrs was the lone opposing vote four times, Mikell was the lone opposing vote three times and the two both voted against something once.

Fehrs’ votes are not always a simple approval or disapproval. Sometimes, he admits, he votes a certain way to make a statement.

For instance, the Selectboard recently considered a request from developer Al Senecal to transfer sewer capacity from one property to another. Because Senecal had acquired the capacity before the current ordinance prohibiting a transfer was approved, town rules allowed the transfer.

However, once Fehrs recognized that other board members were poised to approve the transfer, he announced that he would vote against it, because he does not believe it is good town business to allow such a transfer.

“I thought it was important to get that view in the record,” Fehrs said.

Fehrs said he does not get upset by fellow board members’ votes, but he is bothered when he believes their decisions have not been fully explored.

“Sometimes, I think we make decisions too quickly and that’s worrisome to me,” Fehrs said.

However, Fehrs said none of the Selectboard members who have served during his tenure have fallen short of his expectations for assiduousness on a consistent basis. Consequently, Fehrs’ disappointment with board decisions has never morphed into ill will.

“If the decision is made and I don’t agree with it, as long as I think the board made it the right way, then I’m not going to feel any need to contest it,” Fehrs said.

Similarly, board members’ frustration with Fehrs never seems to last.

“He wants to make sure the process is done right and I think we appreciate that,” Lyons said.

Fehrs plans on maintaining his contrarian’s role on the Selectboard and will continue acting almost as if he was an outside observer. And he vows to be early to the board’s next meeting.

“I’ll try to get my old seat back,” he said.