by Nat Frothingham
I was in the audience at a well-attended Montpelier City Council meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 9.
As the meeting began at least 20 Montpelier citizens walked up to the microphone and voiced their personal support for City Manager Bill Fraser.
Many of those who spoke also wondered aloud about open meeting issues.
Some suggested that Vermont’s open meeting law had perhaps been violated. Others simply felt that the spirit of Vermont’s open meeting law had not been respected.
What was clear on Nov. 9 and what’s clear now a week later is this:
First, the City Manager serves at the pleasure of the City Council. The Council hires a manager, evaluates that manager and can continue the manager’s service or dispense with it.
Second, the Montpelier City Council is split right down the middle — three in favor and three opposed on the question of whether the manager’s contract should be renewed.
But that’s not all — when the Council is split as it is today — the Mayor — in this case, Mayor John Hollar — can break the tie —and Mayor Hollar has gone on record not to renew the manager’s contract.
There has been a great deal of “hush-hush” talk about wanting to confine discussions about the City Manager’s performance to executive sessions. There may or may not be wisdom in that.
Certainly the 20 Montpelier citizens who addressed the Council on Nov. 9 were there because they wanted to be there and were there to support Bill Fraser and to worry out loud about open meeting issues.
There is some irony in Vermont’s open meeting law. It celebrates transparency and accountability. On the other hand, it specifically provides for closed, private council meetings for employment-related discussions.
We published the first issue of The Bridge in December 1993 and in all the 20-plus years of the paper’s existence, Bill Fraser has been Montpelier’s City Manager.
Nobody’s perfect. Nobody walks on water.
But from my personal perspective, Bill Fraser has been an outstanding City Manager.
He is friendly and responsive. He is also intelligent, professional and articulate — and he commands the loyalty and respect of the people who work at City Hall. In short, we’ve been lucky to have Bill Fraser as City Manager in what is, by any measure, a difficult job.
Everyone will have his or her own “take” on this but, as I see it, Montpelier is contending with a number of intractable problems that won’t get fixed easily.
Property taxes are high — too high.
Water fees are high — too high.
Rents are high, and we have an affordable housing crisis.
For far too many people, it’s hard to find work that pays the bills.
Our downtown is the envy of other cities and towns across the country because we can walk through it, enjoy it and it’s a constant source of visual, social and historic delight. But let’s be candid. Parts of downtown are thriving. Parts of downtown are just holding their own. And parts of downtown are struggling.
Montpelier used to have a population of about 9,000 people. Slowly, we’ve lost people. Now, the City has about 7,800 people. And everyone here that’s left is supporting a city that’s also a state capital and is daily the magnet for thousands more people than the people who live here and pay the taxes.
Although I don’t think this has clearly come into public view, increasingly, I am seeing the impacts of the growing trade and use and consequences of drugs and addiction.
On the other side, there is immense civic goodwill here. People want this city that we love so much — to flourish and succeed.
And the hardest part of what’s been happening with Bill Fraser, that now seems like an almost non-stop process of talking, speculating, evaluating, discussing the contract, the renewal or not — is the pain being visited on the city. This has not been an exemplary process.
Well, what if the Council votes not to renew Bill Fraser’s contract?
“Where’s the gain?” I ask myself about the impacts that flow from this.
In losing Bill Fraser, we lose his experience, his talent, his history and intelligence in the job.
And we lose something else — or risk losing something else: the solidarity throughout the community and at City Hall, a solidarity that in many ways explains the remarkable civic life here, that accounts for the spirit and energy of this notable, and at times, gloriously beautiful community.