Barre Voters Will Choose Between Thom Lauzon and Samn Stockwell for Mayor | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Barre Voters Will Choose Between Thom Lauzon and Samn Stockwell for Mayor


Published May 8, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

Barre mayoral candidate Samn Stockwell in the city's north end, which was badly damaged by last July's flooding - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Barre mayoral candidate Samn Stockwell in the city's north end, which was badly damaged by last July's flooding

After floods hit downtown Barre last summer, City Councilor Thom Lauzon toured the damage with other local officials and met with residents whose homes had been destroyed. Lauzon, 62, a businessman known for his strong opinions and assertive nature, said the experience convinced him that he should seek another term as mayor, a position he held from 2006 to 2018.

He's facing City Councilor Samn Stockwell, 71, an English professor at Community College of Vermont. If elected on May 14, she would be Barre's first woman mayor, as well is its first openly gay one. She often speaks about helping underprivileged people and said her election would demonstrate that Barre is open to all.

"What being gay brings is a message of, You are welcome here," she said.

Stockwell's supporters praise her drive to make the city more diverse, collaborative and welcoming. Lauzon, the city's largest property owner, is a self-described "numbers guy" who seldom talks about social issues.

Lauzon's supporters acknowledge he is brash.

"There are definitely some times when Thom should probably hold his tongue," said City Councilor Michael Deering. But Lauzon is Barre's best shot at improving its economy, he said. His backers say he's the one to help the city recover and to manage a costly flood-resilience project.

At a council meeting on April 2, Lauzon proposed giving developers a tax break to stimulate construction. Stockwell asked for a delay, saying she wanted the council to have more time to talk about how the tax breaks would affect Barre's financial picture.

"You're so damned afraid to do anything," Lauzon retorted, adding: "It's crazy. Wow. What's the worst thing that can happen?"

Outgoing Mayor Jake Hemmerick admonished Lauzon to be civil.

Some Stockwell supporters say Lauzon is just too abrasive.

"Thom Lauzon tends to raise the heat," said planning commission Secretary Joe Reil, whose wife served a term on the city council. "He'll make snide comments; he'll push buttons and insult people under his breath so only they can hear him. It's nasty."

To some degree, this mayoral contest represents a classic Vermont culture clash. The Granite City, hometown of Gov. Phil Scott, is a blue-collar community of about 8,500 people where thousands of workers once shaped Barre Gray granite into products that were shipped worldwide. That industry has declined, and the city's poverty rate is now 24 percent, more than twice the state average.

In recent years, Barre — or Barre City, as it's often called, to distinguish it from the town with the same name — has attracted new residents priced out of neighboring areas. Two years ago, LGBTQ supporters opened the Rainbow Bridge Community Center, a drop-in space that played a prominent role in flood recovery. The introduction of more progressive ideas has led to backlash at times, such as the conflict that erupted in 2020 over flying a Black Lives Matter flag in City Hall Park.

  • Anne Wallace Allen
  • Thom Lauzon

Barre has what's known as a "weak mayor" system. A salaried city manager appoints and supervises department heads, negotiates contracts for the city, and makes recommendations to the city council. The mayor, who is paid about $2,000 a year, runs city council meetings, votes to break ties and attends ceremonial events such as ribbon cuttings. Candidates for the office do not run as members of political parties.

The flood of July 2023 changed Barre. Like many places in Vermont, the city already faced a critical lack of housing; flooding damaged about 10 percent of its existing stock. About 50 homes were destroyed, and another 300 units need repairs. Flooding and housing now dominate conversations about life in Barre, and Lauzon has garnered support among voters who are worried about rising costs.

He and his wife, Karen, are landlords to many of the town's most prominent businesses, including the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. After the flood, he took about 15 nonprofit leaders out to lunch and presented them all with checks.

Lauzon is a CPA, a partner in a local accounting firm and the owner of more than 50 buildings. In a 2017 cover story, Seven Days detailed how, while mayor, Lauzon also sought to develop some of his own properties and advocated for them before various city boards. Then and now, Lauzon's critics suggest there is a conflict of interest in his dealings with the city — a charge he denies.

Lauzon has long been at odds with the incumbent mayor. Hemmerick has accused Lauzon of using his political clout to benefit his development business while serving on a city council working group on housing. Hemmerick said the group dissolved because of disagreements over tax breaks for developers that Lauzon supported.

"It was clear to me that Thom's interests focused on starving the city's general fund of future revenues in a never-ending Ponzi scheme of tax stabilization that would benefit his personal development interests," Hemmerick wrote in an email to Seven Days.

Lauzon said he doesn't get a better deal than anyone else on his property taxes or an advantage in permitting discussions.

"Show me the proof," Lauzon said in an interview in April.

He is also embroiled in a feud with local residents who are threatening to sue over a property he owns. Since Lauzon bought the building in 2020, summers are sullied by fume-belching skid steers and other diesel equipment idling in the residential district, according to neighbor Steve Restelli. The city sent Lauzon's tenant a warning on April 22 detailing ways the property was violating local ordinances. Lauzon said he has repeatedly asked his tenant to clean up the property.

"I don't think Thom Lauzon is fit to run for anything," Restelli said. He added that he thinks Lauzon is receiving special treatment because of his influence.

"If I was doing what he is doing with that lot, they would have shut me down within a week," Restelli said.

"It's a commercial property; we've been playing by the rules," Lauzon responded when asked about Restelli's complaints.

Rick DeAngelis, co-executive director of Good Samaritan Haven, a homeless shelter in Barre, said his early relationship with Lauzon was rocky. In 2020, he said, Lauzon told him he'd "'make a large donation when you open up a shelter in Montpelier.'"

DeAngelis was taken aback. "I was like, Oh, man, this guy has a chip on his shoulder about bringing in poor populations to Barre."

But DeAngelis has grown to appreciate Lauzon and his donations and said if he lived in Barre, he'd vote for him. Good Samaritan opened a shelter in November in Montpelier's former Elks Club building.

"You know, he was right," DeAngelis said. "If we were going to add additional services, we should bring it into some of the other communities."

Stockwell previously worked as a disabilities and mental health manager at Head Start and at Washington County Mental Health Services. When she announced her candidacy at an event in early March, she relayed a story she'd heard about a family that had been housed in a motel for four years.

"Most people don't appreciate how hard the poor have to work to keep a roof over their heads," she said.

Stockwell is well known in Barre. Now in her fourth year on the city council, she emphasized collaboration at her campaign announcement. "No matter how hard we work, none of us will get everything we want," she told her supporters, who cheered and clapped.

"All of us make mistakes; we'll all get discouraged, and we'll disagree," she said. "To be allies of each other, we must help each other through the rough spots."

In an interview, Stockwell said she'd like to improve conditions for poor residents, including by offering better public transportation and assistance with childcare; she'd also like to attract a full-size grocery store close to downtown — something Barre hasn't had in more than 30 years.

Darren Ohl, who owns the downtown Vermont Bicycle Shop, has been impressed with how Stockwell works with others.

"Barre has never had a woman mayor," he said. "What the hell! It's time."

He added, "Thom has had his chance, and he's done a fine enough job. But it's time to let someone else get into that role and do a good job."

Not everyone thinks Stockwell's approach is what Barre needs.

"Samn's talking about how we've got to get through this with kindness," City Councilor Deering said. "I love Samn. I love kindness. But kindness is not going to solve budget issues. Kindness is not going to drive up the grand list and get things done in public-private partnerships."

A big job lies ahead for the city, which could get millions of dollars from the feds and the state to help redevelop the city's devastated north end by creating a floodplain and new flood-resistant housing. That's work that City Manager Nicolas Storellicastro will continue to lead, whoever is elected mayor. He said the city council on which Lauzon and Stockwell both sit has taken important first steps by signing off on preliminary plans for buyouts and rebuilding.

"The big thing is making sure there's consensus on a vision" for the area, Storellicastro said. "And I think we've gotten there."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Barre Different | City voters will choose between pugnacious Thom Lauzon and progressive Samn Stockwell for mayor"

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