When Pownal Selectboard member Jenny Dewar resigned earlier this month, she issued a resignation letter citing conflict with fellow board member Bob Jarvis.
The differences between the two came to a head over a community development organization that calls itself Discover Pownal. The organization derived from Empower Pownal, which is closely tied to big green energy state initiatives.
The constant fighting and subsequent resignation were unsettling to Pownal’s town administrator, Michael Walker.
“It was distressing to see them not getting along,” he said. He added that the resignation “was a big surprise, it happened kind of all of the sudden.”
Dewar’s letter described a persistent conflict between herself and Jarvis: “Since joining the board, every initiative I have proposed has been in one way or another obstructed or interfered with by Mr. Jarvis. We were both appointed to the hiring committee for the Town Administrator and within moments he was sending me emails ordering me around. He did everything he could to obstruct the process that had been in motion for two years.”
But Jarvis has responded with his own accusations. He told True North that there seemed to be “an ongoing campaign of … intimidation by an elected official [Dewar].”
“We have liberty-minded citizens who are afraid to voice their opinions and speak up because they know they will be on the receiving end of some pretty vicious attacks,” Jarvis said.
Dewar, in an interview with True North, denied the accusation.
“That’s absurd,” she said. “I’ve only responded to statements, I’ve never initiated those conversations.”
Jarvis also took issue with the board’s hasty appointment of Dewar’s replacement, former board member Suzanne Caraman. The board made the appointment by a 3-to-1 vote after Dewar’s resignation. Caraman, who was recommended in Dewar’s letter, lost her seat to Jarvis last March.
“I don’t believe we had the authority to turn and appoint somebody the same day,” Jarvis said.
Selectboard member Ronald Bisson agrees.
“I don’t know what the panic was to start with,” he said. “Bob thought we should wait until the following week. … I didn’t know why we had to make the immediate decision.”
On the friction between Jarvis and Dewar, Bisson said that’s a reality of professional life.
“They just don’t get along well — that’s too bad,” he said. “I never quit a job because I couldn’t get along with someone else. … I was always told, if you don’t like how things are going, you don’t change it by quitting.”
Walker acknowledged it was a quick turnaround for Dewar’s replacement, but he added that right away he had the town’s lawyer review the process and “it was perfectly legal.”
Jarvis says he and others question if there was a conflict of interest when board chair Nelson Brownell voted for Caraman after she worked on his campaign to successfully run for the Bennington-1 House seat this year.
Regarding Discover Pownal and its former status as Empower Pownal, Dewar had been actively involved with the group since it all started about two years ago. Jarvis said that Empower Pownal was created as part of the state’s new Climate Economy Public Communities Program.
“Pownal was the first climate-economy model community to come out of that state program, and that’s what many people were opposed to,” Jarvis said. “We didn’t like the fact that we were entered into it, we had no say about being entered into it. It was just a grant application and it moved forward.”
Jarvis said the concern among some residents was that the program would be used to push intrusive green energy projects and policies onto the community. Now that it’s named Discover Pownal, it claims to be completely independent of any state initiatives. It also has filed for 501(c)3 status.
Dewar reiterated its independent status.
“Now it’s its own grassroots organization,” she said. She added that Empower Pownal was “a process” and never a formal organization of its own.
Jarvis also takes issue with town representatives involved in Discover Pownal using their government positions to vote for grant money.
“That was in our application to a municipal planning grant where Discover Pownal was named in the grant and yet multiple members of Discover Pownal who are also on the Planning Commission voted to proceed with the grant,” Jarvis said.
Walker alleges the town did no wrong in asking Discover Pownal for a letter of support for the grant.
“Discover Pownal is a local group, and what the state likes to see is local groups support the plan and that was my goal,” he said. “I was just trying to get the grant — nothing to do with seeking leverage with anyone.”
Jarvis said he’s no longer focused on the group.
“I think at this point we have to put the whole Empower Pownal thing [behind us], whether or not we entered into it correctly or legally, whether or not it was a state program,” he said.
Walker said he largely stays out of the fray between Jarvis and Dewar, and added that he gets along with both of them.
“Mr. Jarvis is absolutely free to voice his opinions,” he said. “I’m an administrator. … The board directs me to do work at their behest.”