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Race For Mayor Turns Bitter In Montpelier

Peter Hirschfeld
Challenger Gwen Hallsmith and Montpelier Mayor John Hollar at a candidate forum.

The roughest politics in Montpelier are usually found in the Statehouse or governor’s office. But at City Hall this year, a combative race for mayor is as fierce as anything going on under the Golden Dome.

The contest pits incumbent John Hollar against the challenger Gwen Hallsmith, who also happens to be the city’s recently fired planning director. And neither has made much effort to veil his or her contempt for the other.

Hallsmith has had especially cross words for Hollar, whom she says orchestrated her termination from city government last November.

“So from my point of view and from my own experience, personal experience, yeah, the mayor had a lot to do with my termination,” Hallsmith said this week. “He had been advocating against me for almost a year by the time it happened because of my role as an advocate for public banking.”

Hollar is a lawyer at a Montpelier firm whose clients include Bank of America and Wells Fargo. And Hallsmith says he used the mayor’s office to quash whatever threat her activities posed to big banks.

Hollar says he did have concerns about the compatibility of Hallsmith’s advocacy for public banking with her work as an economic development officer for the city. Hollar says he was particularly put off by the themes discussed in a conference about the “new economy” that Hallsmith organized last year.

“The conference that I had attended at her request did certainly raise questions about her belief in a private market,” Hollar says. “And I did and do think it would be difficult to serve as an economic development officer in Montpelier and not believe in sort of basic market principles.”

But Hollar says it was Hallsmith’s chronic under-performance as city planner that did her in professionally, not his emails to the city manager criticizing her political advocacy.

“We have a city employee who was terminated by our city manager for a long list of causes relating from inappropriate use of city resources, dishonesty and a few other things,” Hollar says. “It’s matter of public record and if anybody wants to investigate that they can.”

The particulars of the feud between the two candidates have come under a microscope in recent months, thanks to the release of internal documents in which Hollar, Fraser and some city councilors express their displeasure with Hallsmith’s private advocacy, personal behavior and professional performance.

In one email to Montpelier City Manager Bill Fraser, Hollar said he doesn’t “see how our city’s chief economic development officer can hold and promote views that are fundamentally anti-capitalist in nature.”

Hallsmith says the emails prove that her termination in late November was at Hollar’s behest.

“And I think it’s inexcusable for the mayor, in fact it’s against our city charter, for anybody on city council to meddle in the staffing decisions that the city manager makes, but it’s pretty obvious from all of the written records that I have and that have now been public that that’s exactly what they were doing," she says.

Internal documents written by Fraser, however, cite Hallsmith’s “insubordination,” misuse of city resources and “loss” of “everyone’s trust in your judgment and temperament” as grounds for her dismissal. And members of the Montpelier City Council and Planning Commission say Hallsmith’s inability to take direction or work well with others long predates Hollar’s arrival on the scene.

Hallsmith says her first negative performance review didn’t come until after Hollar raised objections, and that the cause for her termination was manufactured to accommodate the mayor’s agenda.

Hollar says his first two-year term has been a successful one. He says that by streamlining city government, he and the city council have been able to ramp up investment in city infrastructure while keeping tax rate increases below the rate of inflation. The changes at City Hall last year resulted in the elimination of four positions, though none required layoffs.

Hollar says Hallsmith’s candidacy is not symptomatic of broader discontent with the direction in which he’s taken the city.

“I don’t gather that there’s a lot of support out there for a change in direction at City Hall,” Hollar says. “I mean, we will know soon.”

But Hallsmith contends there’s unrest among voters, and that people aren’t happy with the fiscal policies being advanced by Hollar and the council members he’s aligned with. The three contested races for City Council each feature a candidate that openly and vigorously endorses Hollar for mayor.

“Around town they’ve been known as the Chai Party, partially because so many of their principles sound a whole like the Tea Party at the national level – cut government, cut government, cut government, cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes,” Hallsmith says.

Hollar says he’s been concerned by tactics employed by Hallsmith in her battle to keep her city job and her quest to unseat him as mayor.

In a letter to Gov. Peter Shumlin, supplied to the city of Montpelier after a public records request filed by Fraser, Hallsmith says her personnel issues might be ameliorated if Shumlin were to threaten Fraser and Hollar with intervention by law enforcement.

“I’m sure that a private word to the Manager and the Mayor about the possibility of a state police investigation… might be enough to get them to the negotiating table for establishing reasonable conditions that would allow me to continue to work here,” Hallsmith wrote.

Hallsmith says she was “desperate” at the time, and didn’t know who else to turn to.

“I was feeling desperate,” Hallsmith says. “I could see that my job was going to be eliminated and I wasn’t going to get a fair hearing.”

Hallsmith has appealed her firing, and says she intends to clear her good name. Hollar says he’s looking forward to getting this election behind the city, so that elected representatives can again focus on issues facing Montpelier.

Montpelier residents will decide the race in an Australian ballot vote on town Meeting Day.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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