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New Vergennes Mayor Vows To Move City Forward After Months of Turmoil

A photo of Vergennes mayor Mathew Chabot in front of a wooded background
Mathew Chabot, courtesy

If you don't live in Vergennes, you could be forgiven for not following the local mayor's race or who's running for city council. But a lot has happened in the small city over a tumultuous last few months. Newly-elected mayor Mathew Chabot says he wants to get Vergennes back on track.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Mathew Chabot, who served previously as a Vergennes City Councilor and worked as city manager. Chabot was elected the Mayor of Vergennes by city voters on Town Meeting Day on March 2. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Looking over the past eight months or so, we saw Mayor Jeff Fritz resign from the position [and] multiple city councilors stepping down. There were petitions from the public, the city manager had to leave the job, and there were some acrimonious council meetings. That's a lot for a small city. What happened?

Mathew Chabot: Over the course of the last really two-and-a-half or three years, we have gone through some significant changes with the [city] administration and our council.

We had a long serving city manager of over 30 years who resigned [in 2018]. And, you know, I stepped down from city council, and came into the role city of manager and worked with the council for over 15 months. We hired a new manager in January of 2020. Things started off well enough. And by midsummer, there was significant division between the city manager and the mayor, and some members of the council as well.

Were these divisions of a philosophical bent? Was it about actual policy? I'm just trying to get an idea of what it was that caused so much rancor.

If I were to try to put a nail on it, I would say that it started in the previous year with discussions regarding reducing the [Vergennes Police Department] budget. And then, you know, over the course of 2019, with Black Lives Matter coming to the forefront, it really kind of just pulled the lid off the community. We were as divided as the country was.

There really seemed to be two different camps: either you supported Black Lives Matter or you supported our local police department. Many of our residents supported both, as do I, but it really created a schism through our community.

More From VPR: Reporter Debrief: Meet Stephen Bates, Vt.'s First Black Sheriff In Vergennes

I want to ask about these allegations from the outgoing mayor. Lynn Donnelly said there was a lot of “corruption” in Vergennes and “the city was in a mess.” Now, there were never any specifics around that claim of corruption. Do you know what Lynn Donnelly was talking about?

It kind of goes back to the police department budget. It came down to differences of opinion, as to what the mayoral responsibilities could be. I met with Lynn prior to running for mayor, and we had a good conversation. I met extensively with our new city manager, Ron Redmond, who is the former executive director to [Burlington’s] Church Street Marketplace, about the word “corruption.”

There's really nothing going on at a corrupt level. There are issues related to our fiscal audit. And again, I think that really can be laid at the feet of having three city managers in a very short period of time. I think that learning process was easier for some than others.

You know, unlike many communities, our audit problem is that we actually had more money than we had anticipated.

More money. But that's not the worst problem to have either, if I'm reading that correctly.

That's correct. There are multiple municipalities within the state of Vermont — I think the number is 15 right now — that are struggling with reconciliations and other accounting and financial matters due in part to administrative offices for the most part, [being] shut down for over six months last year.

Mayor Chabot, I appreciate your candor about these issues regarding Black Lives Matter. And I want to ask about some data on traffic stops [in the city]. An analysis from UVM professor Stephanie Seguino found that black drivers in Vergennes are stopped, searched and ticketed more than three times as often as white drivers.

More from VPR: 'A Level Of Implicit Bias': UVM Study Shows Black, Hispanic Drivers More Likely To Be Policed

I'm wondering what you can do as mayor to address both this racial disparity in policing, and the voices in the community who protested this summer?

Although I ran uncontested, Mitch, I did have a platform of inclusivity. We have a storied history in Vergennes, but we have also invited and welcomed a lot of new voices. They have a different perspective than we may have been living under previously. So, my objective is to ensure that everybody has a seat at the table and that their voices are heard.

What are some of your short-term goals as you move into this new job as mayor? Maybe some things that were sidelined in the last few months, that you'd like to get to quickly?

My first objective is really to help stabilize the council and our central administration.

The second, as you indicated, [is that] some things that are very important to Vergennes have been put on the back burner over the last eight or nine months, not the least of which is the Vergennes Economic Corridor, to get over 800 tractor trailer trucks off Main Street — that’s a daily tally.

In order for us to do that, we are going to have to build an alternate truck route around the city of Vergennes. This has been talked about for many years, but we actually have very good traction to keep working on that. We'd like to see that come to fruition in the next 11 or 12 years.

The other opportunity that we have is regarding our wastewater treatment plant. Every time we get a microburst or a serious downpour, we are having discharges into Otter Creek, which obviously find their way into Lake Champlain, and that's something the city takes very seriously. We're working with an engineering firm and the State of Vermont to get a remediation plan put in place, which will probably include a new collection system, and potentially a new wastewater treatment plant.

I imagine there must have been a lot of hard feelings given everything that happened over the last year that we've talked about here. But I'm wondering how you would describe your relationship now with this group of city councilors and what you hope to accomplish with them, maybe longer term?

I'm very pleased with the team. It's a very well-rounded group of individuals. We have, again, the 30-year city manager [Mel Hawley] on the council. We have new folks, new members to our community as well. And I've asked this council again to please take a step back, and let's figure out how we can move forward together from what I believe to be the professionalism and experience of this team. I believe that we can get there quickly.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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