Road rage: After losing its road crew, Chelsea may lose its Selectboard
Residents are furious that Chelsea is out of a road crew as winter approaches. And by next week, the town could also be missing a selectboard.
After 29 years as Chelsea’s road commissioner and town foreman, Rick Ackerman resigned on Tuesday following a series of disagreements between him and the Selectboard over the town budget and other issues, according to Linda Kuban, who organized support for him in a Chelsea community Facebook group.
The Selectboard had presented Ackerman with a “pre-termination letter,” Kuban said. In a show of solidarity, she said, Ackerman’s two other crew members also resigned.
That provoked what one Selectboard member described as a “shouting match” at a public meeting on Thursday and the apparent resignations of at least one board member and possibly more.
Ackerman did not respond to messages this week. His sister told VTDigger he would not comment. Two phone messages left for Selectboard chair Levar Cole were not returned.
The board met in executive session for 45 minutes at an emergency meeting Monday night to discuss a personnel issue, according to meeting minutes, before board member Geoff Clayton “moved to send a letter to town employee (sic) and establish a meeting with the employee to discuss the letter.” The minutes do not indicate a vote on the motion.
Another board member, Merrill Whitney, said he could not provide a copy of the letter but confirmed it had been sent to Ackerman. Whitney said he and another board member, whom he declined to name, had tendered their resignations, and contended two of the remaining three may follow suit.
The episode sparked outrage in hundreds of comments in the Facebook group, where community members in the Orange County town of about 1,200 people voiced their support for Ackerman and indignation at the Selectboard’s handling of the situation.
“Wow, winter around the corner. Good luck Chelsea!” a user named Jonathan Bicknell wrote.
Another, Tim Roberge, said residents “need to be screaming at the Selectboard” and it “might be time for a few to resign.”
Nick Zigelbaum, who supports Ackerman, estimated at least 50 residents attended a Selectboard meeting on Thursday, with many calling for accountability from board members.
“It was just one after the other telling the board how much of a mistake they’d made in managing Rick the way that they did,” Zigelbaum said.
In interviews, Zigelbaum and Whitney said the meeting revealed that the main disagreements between Ackerman and the board involved budgeting.
Whitney — who used the “shouting match” descriptor — said that Ackerman was spending money that he didn’t have the authority to spend, and the board has had to cover those bills in the past.
“There’s been two other instances where the Selectboard have sanctioned him, told him that he needed to shape up, and he has stormed off and thrown a fit and acted like he was going to leave and the board members ran right after him,” Whitney said. “Well, we didn’t run after him and beg him to come back.”
Whitney said that this year, because the extreme rise in diesel fuel prices put Chelsea over its road budget, the Selectboard wanted to conserve spending.
“He was told not to drive trucks or grade roads anymore than necessary, unless it was a really bad spot that people couldn’t get over and had to be fixed,” Whitney said. “And he continued to do it.”
Kristianne Gale, a Chelsea transfer station employee who also supports Ackerman, said the board has made a “very strong push to save money.” Gale said that the Selectboard had been micromanaging Ackerman for a long time to cut costs.
“He’s an ox. He is a viking, a tireless, tireless worker,” Gale said of Ackerman. “It just doesn’t seem very respectful to somebody who’s done the position for as long as he has.”
According to Zigelbaum, after months of tension over the budget, the last straw came when Ackerman allowed Zigelbaum to install a water line across the road by his 220-acre pork and beef farm, without permission from the Selectboard — which then ordered the water line removed.
“I was one of the pieces that caused Rick to resign,” Zigelbaum said. “I was kind of the final piece, I guess.”
Zigelbaum’s Longest Acres Farm is part of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture’s Pasture and Surface Water Fencing Program, which provides financial assistance for farmers in an effort to improve water quality, according to the program.
The state gave Zigelbaum a grant to improve water quality on his farm by adding water to a hay field across the road from his farm, he said. “To get water there, I had to cross the road,” he said.
Zigelbaum said a contractor told him he needed permission from the road commissioner in order to install a water line across the road. He said he asked Ackerman, who said, “go for it.”
Town policy, however, says that the Selectboard must grant permission for such a project.
“The actual town policy is that I submit a permit to the Selectboard, and they approve it, and then I speak to Rick,” Zigelbaum said. But he argued the Selectboard’s reaction was overboard, especially since one of the members lives on his road.
“All they needed to do was call me and say, hey, we need to figure out a solution to this,” he said. “I could have submitted a permit.”
Because Zigelbaum had not submitted a request to the Selectboard, the board ordered Ackerman to supervise the water line’s removal, Zigelbaum said. He said Ackerman refused.
Amber Reed, a pasture specialist working on the Pasture and Surface Water Fencing Program, said other farmers in Chelsea have water lines under roads.
“Usually the verbal agreement of a town road person is plenty,” she said.
The Selectboard is scheduled to meet again on Tuesday night, at which time townspeople expect to get answers. But they may be met with more questions.
“The board chairman has gotten two of our resignations, and he’s expecting the other two,” Whitney said.
Messages left this week for the other board members — including Clayton, Bruce Hook, and Mark Whitney, who is Merrill Whitney’s son — were not returned.
Reached by phone on the Veterans Day holiday, Secretary of State Jim Condos said he could not comment on what happens if an entire Selectboard resigns because he would need to research the question once back in the office.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of what would happen if all the members resigned,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Nick Zigelbaum’s surname.
Read the story on VTDigger here: Road rage: After losing its road crew, Chelsea may lose its Selectboard.