Speaking Out On Morality Of Politics In Montpelier

by John Odum, Montpelier City Clerk

It’s been a while since I’ve written for The Bridge. In fact, the last time I did was nearly five years ago when I served as News Editor. When Carla asked me to write something about the concerns I expressed in the December 14 issue of the Times Argus concerning the City Manager’s contract, I couldn’t say no. I also knew that anything I wrote for The Bridge would be more personal, given my history here. So personal it is.

Since I left my position at The Bridge, as well as the online platforms I participated in such as Green Mountain Daily, The Guardian and the Huffington Post, I haven’t spoken up about much (or at least not publicly). Being city clerk is a busy job, but it’s also a non-policy job. In other words, having an opinion is not a prerequisite, and frankly, that was part of the appeal.

Still, like everyone else, I am a moral being, and I am affected by things around me. As such, I have — on occasion — pulled my head up out of the ground to weigh in on issues that concern me.

Now, nobody likes an “activist” municipal clerk. I get that. It’s why I’ve tried to limit myself to issues relating to the duties of the office, such as my work promoting the creation of an efficient and secure system for Election Day voter registration — a position that put me in conflict with my own Vermont Clerks’ Association.

In engaging with the question as to whether longtime city manager and community member Bill Fraser deserves to be cast out of City Hall, I have approached it in two ways. First, there have been questions raised about the Open Meetings Law. I won’t rehash that issue here, as it was well-covered in a previous issue of The Bridge. Suffice to say that it was another case of a matter very naturally and organically connected to my official duties, so sending a letter to the Attorney General’s office seemed like a natural extension of those duties, and a responsibility to the people who elected me.

The underlying issue, though — that of whether Mr. Fraser deserves to be summarily dismissed, especially in light of the overwhelming public support for him, is a bit different. Engaging with that question was a moral choice. I chose to stand up for someone I know to be a good man whose livelihood was under what I perceive as an unfair, even dishonorable attack.

But in addition, it was also one I will confess to feeling a share of responsibility for.

The reason for that is that Bill has been in the sights of the core of the group that formed the “Vibrant and Affordable Montpelier” effort for some time. For reasons I don’t fully understand (because I don’t believe them to be entirely rational) Bill has been the focus of much of their ire concerning property tax values and the feeling among many that the City should do less, thereby saving money. While those issues are always worthy of debate – in fact no city can be healthy without that debate – the focus on Mr. Fraser, who is a policy implementer rather than a policy maker, is simply off the mark.

But the reason I feel a share of responsibility is that the Vibrant and Affordable Montpelier agenda is one I had a hand in promoting, both through my work at The Bridge, and also through the rhetoric I employed to get elected in 2012. I ran as an cost-saver and efficiency-maker, and indeed that is how I continue to define and approach my own role in City Hall. Although I didn’t sign onto the letter, I became associated with the agenda of the group.

There is a sense, therefore, that when this group overreaches in this way, they are doing so in my name (as they are in the names of the many supporters of Mr. Fraser who were signatories to the Vibrant and Affordable Montpelier letter to begin with.) I believe this obliges me, as a citizen of Montpelier raising my own family in this community, to step up and be counted.

But it’s more than that, even. This is a council that is quick to reconsider an issue when they receive pushback from the public in all other decisions. But this issue has proven to be, not just “an” exception, but “the” exception. They are dug in and determined like never before, and the overwhelming cries of their constituents amount to little. As someone who has spent his life in and around politics, I can’t recall ever seeing anything like it.

And it’s not a refusal to budge on principle. They aren’t dug in on a matter of policy. No, the majority is immovable in their focused desire to get this one guy, despite the lack of cause.

There’s something deeply wrong with that.

Now, there’s a lot deeply wrong with the world right now. Capricious and mean politics have taken the day nationwide. Like so many of my neighbors, the national results of last month’s Election Day left me somewhat devastated. But like my neighbors, I took some solace in the thought that my community was different — that we were a true community. A small city of neighbors who support each other through rough times.

It’s been a tough pill to swallow to see this kind of politics come home.

In the face of the new political reality taking hold in Washington, many of us have been asking ourselves what we should do, and where we fit in. I can’t remember a time when the ground beneath my feet felt less steady. But I think the answer to the question of how we make the world a place we can be proud of always has to start with our own back yard.

So that’s why I felt obliged to share an opinion. My sincerest hope is that the council comes to its senses before more damage is done.

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