By Emma Cotton/VTDigger
In the lead-up to Town Meeting Day, Rutland City lawns have been covered with candidate signs.
Two dozen people are competing for seven positions in city leadership, and while Covid-19 has made it easier to file as a candidate, contested races are nothing new in Rutland, particularly for the board of aldermen.
In 2017, 17 candidates vied for six seats on the board of aldermen. Four years later, 17 candidates are, once again, competing for six seats on the 11-member board. Voters will make their choices on March 2.
The board will have at least three new members, as three incumbents decided to step down. Melinda Humphrey and Lisa Ryan are not running again, and Chris Ettori gave up his seat to pursue the mayor’s office.
Running for reelection are Tom DePoy, who has been on the board since 2007; Rebecca Mattis, who has served since 2017, and Bill Gillam, who served from 1992 until 2008, and returned to the board in 2018.
Other candidates for the two-year seat include John Atwood, Rick Battles, John Cioffi Jr., Chad Snyder-Deangelis, Mike Doenges, Thomas Franco, Russell Glitman, Kam Johnston, Matt Merritt, Buddy Miles, Devon Neary, David O’Brien, Matt Reveal and Carrie Savage.
Though races for board seats have been competitive in the last decade, Covid-19 hasn’t allowed for the usual door-to-door campaigns and in-person forums, which some speculate could leave newcomers at a disadvantage.
“Typically in local elections, the No. 1 indicator of who’s going to be elected is name recognition,” said Matt Whitcomb, who chairs the Board of Aldermen. “In a year where it’s more challenging than ever to campaign, I wonder just how much more that will become important. If that’s the case, I think that does lend itself to potentially four to five new people on the board.”
Newcomers would be stepping into a city government that has been divided on issues likely to be at the forefront of voters’ minds on March 2. In an age of widespread political division, Rutland’s politics have followed, particularly on issues related to social justice.
In the last two years, when board member Lisa Ryan pushed to hold implicit bias training for all city employees, board members split. Ryan — the first person of color to serve on the board — was harassed soon after, and the conflict escalated. Ryan cited the harassment as her central reason for stepping down.
A similar chasm appeared when Melinda Humphrey recently suggested that the board pass a resolution to publicly condemn the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, which failed. Humphrey is also stepping down.
Since the summer, the board and city have debated whether Rutland High School should change its mascot from the Raiders, a name rooted in harmful stereotypes that reference Native Americans, or whether the school should keep the traditional name.
The school board is the only body with jurisdiction over that decision, and it has already approved a new name, the Ravens. There is almost nothing the Board of Aldermen can do to change the school board’s decision, though many agree the issue will likely be on voters’ minds.
The divide is similar in theme to 2017, when then-mayor Chris Louras attempted to partner with Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program to welcome 100 Syrian refugees. Louras, who would have been the longest-serving mayor in Rutland’s history, lost in a landslide to current mayor, Dave Allaire.
Like the resettlement conversation, many city residents said they wanted more input before the school board made a decision about the mascot.
“The city is once again divided,” said Mike Lannon, chair of the Republican Party in Rutland City. “The school name change issue has galvanized the electorate. It isn’t pretty and will take a long time to heal, if that is possible.”
Points of agreement
In a forum for Board of Alderman candidates, hosted by Peg-TV, moderator Tom Donahue asked candidates how they would bring a divided board together.
Atwood said it’s important to be clear, honest, and seek to understand others’ intentions. “I think when we start to avoid communicating with each other and we put ourselves in our own camps, where we start to make assumptions about the other side that are unverified and may not be true, that creates division,” he said.
Battles said he’d try to decide what the taxpayers need and want, and make sure the city is run the right way. “If elected, I would be on there to earn the rest of the board’s trust,” he said.
Thomas Franco said the subject of division has come up as he’s been talking to Rutland residents. “Our ideas are not always going to align, and that’s the beauty of democracy,” he said. “We have these differences of opinion. But our ability to come to terms with a set of shared facts, and operate from a shared framework, and then operate with those differences of opinion is really a core to moving forward.”
Incumbents Mattis and Gillam said that the board has come together on many other issues it’s handled in the last several years.
“We have passed budgets, we have gotten gymnasiums purchased, we have worked on roads, we have worked on sidewalks, we have worked on contracts, we have worked on a vision for the city, we have worked on finance organizations that help us move that goal,” Gillam said. “I think we are mostly in agreement.”
Mattis said the board members work well together most of the time, but are often divided on symbolic, partisan issues, like the mascot. “Those are very tricky,” she said. “They have to do with peoples’ political and cultural identities.”
On the Raiders issue, Mattis said she listened to the needs of the community, and tried not to vilify anyone. Those efforts require time, she said, so that board members can build common ground.
DePoy, who was not at the forum, told VTDigger he has found common ground with Ettori on budget cuts, and worked closely with Mattis on a recent sign ordinance, despite his disagreement with both of those members on the mascot issue.
Whitcomb told VTDigger he sees a consistent split on issues that are related to social justice, but otherwise agreed with DePoy, Mattis and Gillam.
“A lot of the other issues that we encounter there’s disagreement, but there’s definitely a willingness to engage in a debate,” he said. “And we seem to be much more successful, working on producing a product that we all feel works.”
But while DePoy said the board should avoid social justice issues altogether, Whitcomb said furthering those issues is necessary for the city.
“I absolutely think we have to be considering this,” he said. “The impact that it has on our region, whether that be that we become unable to market the city because we’ve developed a poor reputation, or businesses don’t want to relocate because they feel as though they’re not accepted in the community.”
With Humphrey, Ryan and Ettori — who advocated for the board to be involved in furthering social justice — stepping down, the board’s new dynamic could swing in any direction.
Whitcomb said, “I’ve never seen a race like this, or a year like this. I just have no idea what’s gonna happen. I sincerely hope that all the people who are elected show up and are ready to work very hard.”