Ash trees on Lake Road identified for removal. Photo credit Vince Crockenberg.

Selectboard holds special meeting to address ash tree removal RFP

A special meeting for public input about the Selectboard’s bid acceptance process brought more than sixty community members to the Charlotte Town Hall for ninety minutes on Wednesday. The May 1 meeting was calling after a public brouhaha this week over the Selectboard’s request for proposal approval process for an ash tree removal contract on a portion of Lake Road. After public comments, some heated but most measured, the evening ended with one of the two involved contractors removing his bid from consideration and some specific questions left unanswered.

One of the main citizen concerns during the meeting was the fact that Selectboard members Frank Tenney, Louise McCarren, and Carrie Spear all voted in favor of awarding the contract for ash tree removal without a clear explanation why; despite several inquiries, the answers provided by these Selectboard members created a new set of questions.

At the April 22 Selectboard meeting, the board chose Charlotte company Chris’s Lawn Care and Mini Excavating to complete a project for the proposed amount of $10,000. The other company in the running was Teachers Tree Service, owned by Charlotter Greg Ranallo and based in South Burlington. After the meeting, Ranallo posted on Front Porch Forum that he suspected favoritism and personal connections were at the heart of the decision, not thorough and unbiased municipal government process.

Selectboard Chair Matt Krasnow noted at the beginning of the May 1 meeting that community involvement is of value to the Selectboard and that he hoped that “people remain respectful and can agree to disagree.”

Public comments mostly focused on the fact that the RFP process seemed flawed and that the reasons for the Selectboard’s selection of Chris’s Lawn Care over Teachers was still unclear, given that Teachers’ bid was lower, their work time was shorter, and they came with a recommendation from Charlotte’s tree warden.

Resident Meg Price commented first, saying that, though the explanation for why the Selectboard members chose Chris’s Lawn Care was confusing, she didn’t suspect there were nefarious forces at work. “I don’t think things are hidden,” she said, “But I think we need an explanation. For $25 this is a good turnout, but I think there’s a bigger issue here.”

Ranallo, whose Front Porch Forum complaint started the ensuing controversy, said, “I asked Mr. Krasnow and Mr. Bloch [Town Manager Dean Bloch] for an email explanation; never has a low bid been accepted without an explanation, and I felt that I was owed one, and I was never given one.”

When contacted earlier in the week by The Charlotte News, Tenney, Spear, and McCarren all declined to explain their decisions publicly. During the special meeting, audience member Margaret Foster asked for an explanation for each vote in favor of Chris’s Lawn Care. McCarren explained her decision: “The fact that it was a local business swayed my vote.”

Tenney remained silent during the entire meeting, partly because in her initial question, Foster noted that he had emailed her privately and said the reason for his decision was, “I have always looked to small local businesses to fulfill the needs of the town,” so he need not answer her at the meeting.

Selectboard member Carrie Spear, who had initially brought the motion to the table, answered Foster’s question with, “I will catch you after.” Spear was apparently referring to her prepared statement, which she printed, signed, and handed out to members of the audience at the end of the public input portion of the meeting. As the letter was distributed, an audience member said loudly, “This should be read aloud. I will not accept this homework. You should read it.”

Spear said that Krasnow had asked her to wait until the end of the meeting to distribute her written thoughts, but she readily agreed to read it out loud. The gist of her reason came down to this, she said: “I just felt like Chris was capable of doing that job…I thought it was a good choice for Charlotte.” She went on to explain that Chris Fortin, the owner of Chris’s Lawn Care, raised his family in Charlotte and lived on Lake Road, down the street from where the tree removal was occurring.

This response puzzled some audience members. Bill Stuono asked, “Is tenure in Charlotte one of your criteria,” touching on one of the major discussion points of the evening and subsequently, one of the changes promised by the Selectboard moving forward.

When responding to an RFP, contractors need to meet certain requirements (insurance coverage being one), and need to be able to complete all necessary elements of the job. Though disposal of the wood after the trees were cut down was not listed on the RFP, Tree Warden Mark Dillenbeck said that the issue was important to the committee that created the RFP in the first place.

There lies the crux of the issue: Are items that don’t appear on the RFP allowed to be considered when awarding a contract? And should RFPs in the future be more detailed?

Krasnow said that for sure, bidding on town jobs will look very different in the future. “The board is committed to picking this up quickly and not having a similar RFP process moving forward,” he said.

The question of how the tree removal RFP was considered is different; the Selectboard had initially scheduled an executive session after the public input portion of the meeting in order to hear from the town general counsel, but when Ranallo pulled his bid from consideration, saying that he didn’t want to put the town through any more difficulty and that the most important issue for him was to revisit the process, the board voted to cancel that part of the meeting.

The original RFP mentioned no consideration of elements such as removing the smaller, unmarked trees; disposing of the removed trees as firewood or in another manner; or the proximity of the bidders to Charlotte or their years living in the community. Proximity and locality were the reasons given by the three Selectboard members who voted in favor of Chris’s Lawn Care even though those were not official criteria on the original RFP.

Krasnow indicated at the start of the meeting that he would keep public comments on task to the topic of the RFP and bid selection process. Throughout the course of the meeting, he allowed several audience members to discuss their disapproval of removing the trees in the first place; at another point, someone complained about an issue she had with the Selectboard 15 years ago.

Though these comments were allowed, Krasnow cut off both Ranallo and Recreation Commission Chair Bill Fraser-Harris when they brought up another issue with the Selectboard. Ranallo mentioned at one point in the meeting that he heard that an unnamed Selectboard member had requested financial records of all instances of Teachers Tree Service working for the town Recreation Committee. This request, made by the still-anonymous Selectboard member, came on the heels of Fraser-Harris publicly supporting Teachers last week. The request suggested, Ranallo and Fraser-Harris inferred, that there was a possible inappropriate financial relationship of some sort.

Krasnow interrupted both Ranallo and Fraser-Harris when they each brought up this topic; he said it was not “germane” to the public input conversation. Both Ranallo and Fraser-Harris were fine with leaving the topic alone for the moment.

The next Selectboard meeting is on May 14.