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Breaking down a municipal breakdown in Isle La Motte

Welcome sign from the town of Isle La Motte
Shaun Robinson
Welcome sign from the town of Isle La Motte.

Isle La Motte has a new interim town clerk.

That’s bigger news than it might otherwise be — because earlier this month, three town officials abruptly resigned from the Lake Champlain community of roughly 500 residents. That effectively halted municipal business, like paying bills.

Host Jenn Jarecki sat down with VTDigger reporter Shaun Robinson to learn more. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sean, we'll get to this week's news in a moment. But first, let's step back a little because this story is intricate. Lay out for us who resigned recently and why. 

Shaun Robinson
Shaun Robinson/VTDigger
Shaun Robinson

Earlier this month — right at the beginning of the month — three top town officials in Isle La Motte resigned, and they were both in the span of two days, so pretty abrupt. The first was a really long-time Selectboard member. He's not the current chair but used to be the chair. His name is Rusty Spalding. And then the day after that, the town's clerk and treasurer — that's one job: clerk and treasurer — and then also the assistant clerk and treasurer, both resigned as well. And these resignations came up pretty abruptly; the Selectboard seemed pretty surprised and kind of jarred by the letters they got.

And are these resignations related? 

So, the Selectboard member who resigned said that his resignation had nothing to do with the clerk and assistant clerk who resigned. I think it's fair to say, though, that these resignations happened really closely together and are sort of affected by general morale in the town right now.

And what were the reasons behind these resignations? 

The Selectboard member who resigned said that he was really dissatisfied with the direction the board had been going. I think he pointed to an increase in spending — sort of a fiscal argument for why he didn't agree with what the other board members were doing. The resignation letter from the town clerk and treasurer was a little bit more pointed, and that letter really specifically called out this kind of frustration he'd had about not being treated super well working for the town, having a lot of frustrations with communication and managing documents and things like that. So, he was expressing pretty clear frustrations with other members of the town administration.

And that's former town treasurer and clerk Stephen Mank, correct? 

Yes, that's right.

There’s a bit of a backstory here, with frustrations going the other way too. As you’ve reported, Isle La Motte’s Selectboard chair sent Mank an email earlier this month outlining more than a dozen concerns the board had with his work. Including that he hired staff without consulting the Selectboard, made unauthorized purchases using town money, and failed to give budget documents to board members upon request... Has Mank responded to some of the claims from the Selectboard chair?

So, the Selectboard had asked Mank to come to the meeting where they announced these resignations — he did not come to that meeting. He did send me an email, I think a couple of nights after, basically saying, "I disagree with how my job and my work has been characterized." He didn't go into a ton of detail, though, in that email, but it was clear that he saw things very differently than the way they were presented by the Selectboard.

But I do think that, really, since the outset of the pandemic, the jobs that a lot of these local volunteer officials have just become so much more challenging in a lot of ways — you have folks serving on selectboards who are making public health decisions, right?
Shaun Robinson

Are these elected positions Shaun, or are they volunteers or hired staff?

So, the Selectboard position and then the town clerk and treasurer position are both elected in Isle La Motte. That assistant position — so, that third resignation — that's an appointed position. But in Isle La Motte, they do have an elected clerk and treasurer, which is not the case in every town, but it was the case here.

And what impact have these resignations had on Isle La Motte and its residents? 

I think a very obvious impact is that the town office building has physically been closed. And it still is closed even as we're sitting here right now talking about it. So, folks who want to go in and drop off paperwork or look at land records aren't able to do that. There's a notice on the town website saying, you can call us, and you know if you call them — I think I tried calling the number — and there was a voicemail saying we'll try to get back to you when we can. So you know, it's a small town. Yes, it's you know, 490-500 people. But still, folks have, you know, really important business to go in and do every day. So, I could certainly see that being a big impact.

Shaun, earlier this week there was a special meeting of the Selectboard to deal with these issues. Sounds like we have an interim town clerk but not an interim town treasurer just yet. What additional progress if any came out of that meeting earlier this week? 

Overall, the Selectboard seemed excited that someone stepped up and applied and seemed to have the qualifications they were looking for to at least fill in the clerk half of the clerk and treasurer role. But the Selectboard members definitely still had some anxiety, it seems, about where the town is at. There's still a number of open positions that they haven't gotten any applicants for yet. So no one has applied for that missing Selectboard Seat, no one has applied for the treasurer role — at least as far as I know. They're still looking for an office assistant; they're also still looking for a road commissioner. The town's road commissioner — it was earlier this year — also sent in a resignation letter with some pretty strongly worded comments on some frustrations they had with how the town was being managed too. So, a number of open positions still. And again, this is not a big municipal government organization by any means, right? A 500-person town, so, there's not a lot of folks in the town hall on a on a normal day.

Ted Brady, the executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, recently said that it can be really disruptive when one or two people leave town government unexpectedly, but that it's not that uncommon. So Shaun, you've reported on this region for the last couple of years; does this seem like a trend to you smaller Vermont towns struggling to elect or otherwise staff local leadership positions? 

Isle La Motte Town Office
Shanu Robinson/VTDigger
Isle La Motte Town Office

This incident at Isle La Motte, I think, could be seen as isolated for a couple of reasons — maybe the largest of which is just that there's some really specific frustrations some of these officials seem to have with other board members and with other town officials. But I do think that, really, since the outset of the pandemic, the jobs that a lot of these local volunteer officials have just become so much more challenging in a lot of ways — you have folks serving on Selectboards who are making public health decisions, right? And dealing with running meetings and all the things they were always doing, but I think there's an added level of stress and all these other tasks they've been having to do.

I also think that one of the advents of the pandemic, too, was having remote meetings, and I think access to local government has gotten a lot easier for a lot of folks. And I think that that's encouraged people to get involved in some of these meetings that maybe weren't getting involved previously.

So, what happens now in Isle La Motte?

Yeah, so, toward the end of the meeting last night, the two Selectboard members were sort of like, "Well, I guess we need to, you know, advertise the hell out of these jobs," basically. And, you know, really, really tried to get folks interested in serving in town hall again, I know that they're going to be looking to hire an interim bookkeeper. So, not technically an elected town official, but just someone who can get the bills paid and help the town kind of move forward a little bit in that sense. So, I think that's their immediate next step.

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