By Mara Brooks, Editor

After enduring what they described as months of negative press coverage and unfounded allegations of misconduct, Zoning Board of Adjustment members Matt Zucker and Jonathan Fisher resigned last month, and Vice Chair Stuart Bennett announced he would not return when his term expired at the end of April. Chair Frank Tenney, a longtime member of the ZBA who was re-elected to the Selectboard in March, also stepped down in April amid growing concerns about conflicts of interest among town officials.

The exodus signaled the final act of a tumultuous eight months for the ZBA that left the board with only one remaining member: Lane Morrison, who took over Tenney’s role as chair. (As of May 3, new ZBA members Karina Warshaw, Ronda Moore, John David Herlihy and Charles Russell had been selected, along with alternate Andrew Swayze.)

The four now-former ZBA members spoke with The News to set the record straight about why they left and to clear up misconceptions they said were fueled in part by antagonistic press coverage in The News and The Charlotte Bridge.

“There’s always a reason if four out of five board members quit all at once,” said Fisher, who served on the ZBA since 1990.

Zucker, whose second term was scheduled to end in 2023, said he stepped down because the “whispering” about ZBA members “had an impact on my life, personally and professionally. I just couldn’t afford to be associated with something like that.”

That whispering included allegations ranging from conflicts of interest to violations of Vermont open meeting laws in connection with a zoning application filed in October by then-Selectboard member Carrie Spear.

Spear’s application was for a conditional use permit to add an apartment and a deli to her existing retail space, Spear’s Corner Store, in East Charlotte. Then-Zoning Administrator Daniel Morgan approved the application and warned it for hearing. But after reviewing the materials, Tenney said he found Spear’s application, like many others Morgan routinely approved, to be incomplete. (Daniel Morgan resigned as ZA, effective January 1, 2021. He could not be reached for comment.)

By state statute, the ZA has the sole authority to approve zoning applications independent of any other town official or board. But the problem of incomplete applications had plagued the ZBA throughout Morgan’s tenure, and the frequent continuations of hearings were “time consuming and confusing,” Bennett said.

“It was becoming very frustrating in the last two years kicking the can down the road with the applications,” he said. “It was not an efficient way for us to do business.”

In an effort to preempt another fruitless hearing, Fisher said the ZBA members “talked [to each other] ahead of the first Spear hearing about what we needed.”

Tenney also reached out to Morgan to tell him the application was incomplete.

“This was an important and high-profile application and we wanted to do it right,” Bennett said.

But instead of making the application process more efficient, the board’s decision to “help” Morgan would soon come back to haunt them.

Morgan inhabited several roles in his employment with the town: Zoning Administrator, Sewage Control Officer, Public Health Officer and E-911 coordinator, and staff for the ZBA. And while ZBA members were wise to tread carefully in their communications with Morgan the ZA, they were free to engage more openly with Morgan in his role as ZBA staff. At least in theory.

“We weren’t asking the zoning administrator to get more information [to complete the Spear application,” Tenney said of the board’s pre-hearing communications with Morgan. “We were asking our zoning clerk to get more information.”

The distinction between the two positions is valid, said Selectboard Chair Matt Krasnow.

“In an ideal world, the zoning board staffer would go to the ZA and say, ‘Hey there’s some materials missing in this application,’” Krasnow said. “And the ZA would either say, ‘You’re right, I made a mistake, this isn’t ready for a hearing,’ or, ‘I disagree with the zoning board chair’s assessment, it is ready for a hearing.’”

But there can be a fine line between offering feedback to a ZA and seeking to influence their decision, Krasnow said.

“The zoning administrator is supposed to have the latitude to make decisions independent of the boards that they funnel applications to, based on the land use regulations,” Krasnow said. “And that is supposed to be a one-way street.”

For that reason, Krasnow said he couldn’t say if Tenney’s communications with Morgan had been appropriate.

“Anytime two people communicate without oversight, it’s hard to know the truth,” he said.

Although serving on more than one municipal board at the same time is not uncommon in Vermont, doing so might be a case of it works until it doesn’t. The incestuous waters of small-town government get even murkier when officials are required to keep track of which hat to don before speaking to which town official about what issue. And if longtime board members found it tricky to navigate such complex political terrain, the local press might have found it even harder.

Local politician and community member Frank Tenney won his re-election bid for the Selectboard three-year seat. Photo by Ethan Putnam

Frank Tenney

Tenney recused himself from Spear’s Oct. 14 hearing because his brother, Rick, was Spear’s neighbor. Bennett, who led the meeting, informed Spear and her project manager that her application was incomplete. After a tense discussion between the parties, the ZBA voted 3-1 to deny the application, with Lane Morrison voting to approve.

In the weeks that followed, Charlotte News coverage of the ZBA intensified. Then-news editor and investigative reporter Chea Evans announced she had filed a public records request seeking all ZBA communications related to the Spear application. She followed it up with an appeal seeking unredacted versions of some of the documents she received. (Evans and The Charlotte News parted ways in March.)

As for what might have sparked Evans’ suspicions of wrongdoing at the ZBA in the first place, Zucker said he believed someone at the town was “selectively leaking town business to the press.”

“No idea who,” he said.

In her story on the public records dump, Evans’ zeroed in on Tenney’s alleged conflicts of interest and transcribed email exchanges between ZBA members she felt might have violated open meeting laws. The gist of Evans’ reporting seemed to be that something smelled rotten at the ZBA and she was going to get to the bottom of it.

“My feeling is that [Evans] thought she was on some sort of Watergate-novel, Woodward-and-Bernstein investigation,” Fisher said. “That seemed to be her modus operandi, like ‘these are a bunch of crooks and I’ve got to find this out.’”

When reached for comment, Evans indicated she found Fisher’s comparison an apt one.

“I’m flattered that Mr. Fisher would compare me to such iconic American investigative journalists,” Evans said in an email. “I share their commitment to holding government officials accountable and asking difficult questions to keep readers informed. Also, a fun fact: Nixon eventually resigned and so did four members of the ZBA!”

When asked if she meant to suggest the members resigned because they were guilty of misconduct, Evans did not respond.

“[Evans] spent ten thousand dollars of Charlotte money of doing the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request and she didn’t get a whole lot because there wasn’t anything to get,” Fisher said. “Nobody was getting paid off, there weren’t any bribes.”

“It was just boring internal emails,” Zucker said.

Fisher said he felt the Selectboard should have stepped in to defend the ZBA, but the volunteers “got absolutely no support from the Selectboard. And we were being pretty much picked on by Chea, first in The Charlotte News and then in The Bridge.”

Krasnow said he was not aware the ZBA was under fire in the press.

“I didn’t see that there were any decisions the board made by majority votes that were being criticized in the press,” Krasnow said. “I saw that there were individuals that were being criticized. To me, the board is constituted by what their statutorily charged to do and given authority over, and I didn’t see that there was any criticism of that.”

Krasnow said the Selectboard never received any requests from ZBA members to address the issue publicly.

“If any town volunteer feels like they’re being criticized in public, I would encourage them to respond in public, either through a news article, on Front Porch Forum, or in a Selectboard meeting, to discuss any issue that is concerning them,” Krasnow said.

Tenney said although he felt “attacked” by the local press, he and other board members repeatedly declined Evans’ requests for an interview.

“I think we all avoided her like the plague,” Fisher said.

But if they managed to avoid Evans, it proved harder to avoid the implications of her coverage.

“What was upsetting to me is, I was trying to be a good citizen, get involved, volunteer, put my shoulder to the wheel, and then I feel like I got exposed to all of this really icky stuff,” Zucker said.

Zucker criticized the town’s “lack of will” to address issues relating to conflict of interest.

“What I saw was this ad hoc response to whisper campaigns, and that’s not what government officials are supposed to do,” he said. “They’re supposed to stand up for the laws and the documented process and procedure that’s in place. To not do that affects people’s lives and their professional situations in a way that’s intolerable in a small community like this.”

Krasnow agreed the town needs a new conflict-of-interest policy but described the ZBA scandal as “a case where it was more about the perception of a conflict than an actual conflict.”

“These are perceptions that are dependent on other people’s opinions,” he said. “And our current policy just doesn’t address that issue adequately.”

Krasnow said the town is in the process of replacing its existing personnel policy “to better address the ability of employees and volunteers to be able to clarify the distinctions of roles and responsibilities.”

For starters, the zoning administrator will no longer serve as the staff to the zoning board.

“We’re trying to create the ability to have fewer hats per person to mitigate the perception of conflicts of interest,” Krasnow said.

Other changes to town rules of procedure include “an expectation that Selectboard members are not on any other board, commission or committee.” That amendment has yet to be adopted, Krasnow said.

Fisher said while he thinks the town will recover from the zoning board upset, he disagrees with policy changes that will prevent citizens like Tenney from serving on the Selectboard and the ZBA at the same time.

“It was so well known that Frank Tenney was like Mr. Zoning, I mean, the guy has a photographic memory of the regulations,” Fisher said. “And to say he really can’t be on the zoning board anymore—that isn’t what the state statutes say.”

Bennett agreed Tenney’s expertise would be hard to replace.

“I was on the zoning board for six years with what I consider to be really an excellent group of people,” Bennett said. “We worked well together, and we were dedicated to the job. Frank Tenney knew the zoning regulations backwards and forwards. He was, in my view, an exceptionally good chairman.”

But in Krasnow’s vision of local government, expertise may come second to what he called “a healthy process.”

“Since the day I joined the Selectboard, my priority has been to advocate for healthy process and not worry about outcomes,” he said. “All municipal governments have to juggle the individual narratives people bring to the process, but the process to me is the most important piece.”

Fisher disagreed the zoning board resignations signaled a healthy change in the town’s government.

“A very good zoning board quit, and the town Selectboard doesn’t really care too much,” Fisher said. “I think that does have a detrimental effect.”

Tenney, now serving his second term on the Selectboard, said he is optimistic about the future.

“I was on the zoning board for 14 years, and this conflict-of-interest thing has been hanging over me for eight months,” Tenney said. “But now we have a new zoning administrator (Wendy Pelletier) and the few times I’ve talked with her it seems like she’s moving forward so, it’s looking brighter. Let’s put it that way.”