The referee blew his whistle for a timeout with 1:58 left to go in the Vermont Frost Heaves’ home opener in the Barre Municipal Auditorium last November. Vermont’s first-ever professional basketball team had run up a sizeable lead over its opponent, the Québec City Kebekwa — enough to give some game time to its shortest bench-warmer: Barre City Mayor Thom Lauzon. Part of the small-town charm of the American Basketball Association is that teams are allowed to substitute local celebrities for their pro athletes.
Standing at about 5-foot-9, Lauzon looked like a garden gnome next to the towering ABA hoopsters. But the mayor seemed unfazed as he caught a quick pass, drove toward the hoop and drew the foul. The crowd cheered as Lauzon, who played ball in high school, stepped to the foul line and attempted his free throws. The first one bounced off the rim; the second was an air ball. But despite Lauzon’s double goose egg, the Frost Heaves won the game, 117–87. The team went on to win the 2006-07 ABA championship in its inaugural season, giving the Granite City something to cheer about for the first time in years.
Barre residents drew their own analogies between Lauzon’s hoop dreams and his political persona. The mayor’s critics in the blogs were quick to chortle that his performance with the Frost Heaves was classic Lauzon: Thom got in over his head, shot from the hip and soundly embarrassed himself.
But Lauzon’s supporters could just as easily have come to the opposite conclusion: Lauzon is a high-energy player who’s never shy about putting himself out there, bumping elbows with the big boys and trying to make things happen. In an expression Lauzon himself often uses, you’ve got to have some “skin in the game” to win it.
Clearly, Lauzon isn’t shy about getting his own “skin in the game.” Brash, headstrong and opinionated, the 46-year-old accountant and real-estate developer was elected to his first term as mayor in May 2006. Since then, he’s been shaking things up in Barre City, to the delight of some and the horror of others. Even those who disagree with his right-leaning politics begrudgingly admit that he’s an enthusiastic Barre booster who’s making things happen. And, in a city that’s long been its own worst critic, change — any change — is regarded by some as a step in the right direction.
But others question whether Lauzon is really the kind of mover and shaker that Barre needs. With his unabashedly pro-business leadership style, some charge that he’s prone to spouting off at the mouth without first considering how his pronouncements reflect on him or the city. Lauzon attracted a lot of media attention earlier this year when he came out in favor of the death penalty for drug dealers who sell heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine. At the time, he reportedly said he’s open to the idea of Vermont legalizing and taxing marijuana — a statement he now says was misquoted and taken out of context.
Critics also accuse Lauzon of being self-interested, divisive and at times even mean-spirited, barreling ahead with his own agenda for the city without soliciting others’ input or building consensus for his ideas. While that approach may work well in the business world — and Lauzon has been a very successful businessman, owning some of the choicest real estate in the city — his naysayers point out that the wheels of government move slowly and methodically for good reason. He’s a lot more like Michael Bloomberg — New York City’s wealthy, no-nonsense, DIY mayor — than, say, Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss.
On Wednesday, July 11, large sections of North Main Street were under as much as 6 feet of water, the aftermath of dramatic flash flooding that washed away homes, flooded basements and displaced more than 100 residents. Barre City firefighters had evacuated scores of people and their pets, including flocks of poultry, horses and “one big-ass monkey,” Lauzon notes.
By Friday, Barre is open again for business. As Seven Days catches up with the colorful, controversial mayor, he and Barre City Fire Chief Peter John are discussing the ongoing cleanup, the pending disaster declaration and what’s to be done with all the toxic sludge left in the streets and parking lots. Barre firefighters have spent two days pumping out flooded basements and hosing down streets and driveways. In the past, the fire department didn’t handle those chores. But after Lauzon met with Chief John and interim City Manager Reginald Abare, they decided it needed to be done.
Lauzon looks taller in council chambers than he did on the basketball court. Fit, tan and with a deep baritone voice, he’s friendly, talkative and generous with his time, despite the long hours he’s put in this week. Lauzon claims he only sleeps four to five hours a night, and often starts his workday at 4:30 a.m.
He’s not originally from Barre. Born in Bennington, Lauzon moved to New Jersey at age 2, then later returned to Vermont with his parents. He attended St. Michael’s College in Colchester, but met his Barre-native wife, Karen, in New York City, while Lauzon was working on Wall Street. The couple has two children — Alex, 15, and Miranda, 14 — and reportedly give generously of their time and money to several community boards and civic organizations, including the Barre Opera House, the Lions Club and the Barre Partnership.
Lauzon’s own house wasn’t directly affected by the flood, though he’s keenly aware that it could have been. He lives next to Edgewood Brook where, in 1927, Vermont Lieutenant Governor Samuel Hollister Jackson drowned in a similar flood, just yards from his own home.
After the fire chief leaves, Lauzon has nothing but rave reviews for his city’s emergency services. “I’ll tell you, everybody was on their game this week. It was just a flawless performance,” he says. “A lot of times, people question the value of our police department and fire department . . . Did they prevent any property damage? Probably not. But did they save some lives? Absolutely! I’m convinced they did.”
It’s not surprising to hear a mayor gush about his fire department so soon after a natural disaster. Interestingly, the Barre firefighters’ union came out in support of Lauzon in last year’s mayoral race against the pro-union incumbent, Peter Anthony. That’s especially remarkable since Lauzon, a Republican, makes no secret of his dislike for organized labor. “I gotta tell you, I’m not a big union guy,” he confirms. “Dealing with the unions is probably the most frustrating part of my job.”
In fact, one of Lauzon’s first acts as mayor last year was to amend the city charter from stating that Barre “shall” have paid, professional police and fire departments, to stating that it “may” have paid, professional police and fire departments. What was behind that revision? Chet Briggs, president of the Barre Historical Society, suggests that the mayor was looking for a way to save money, possibly by switching to an all-volunteer fire department, but also as a way to break the unions.
Lauzon dismisses that suggestion as nonsense. “There’s always the conspiracy theorists who say I want to dissolve the fire department,” he scoffs. “Go to a volunteer fire department? That’s not on my radar screen. They’ve proven their worth time and time again.”
So why revise the city charter? Lauzon explains that he wants Barre City to consider regionalizing all of its emergency services — police, fire and EMS included — both as a cost-saving measure and as a way of improving and expanding customer service to surrounding communities.
Barre City firefighter Matthew Cetin is president of IAFF Local 881. Although the union initially opposed Lauzon’s city charter amendment, Cetin says it has since warmed to the idea. And, despite the mayor’s professed dislike for unions, Cetin says the negotiations with Lauzon over their new five-year contract were “pretty painless, actually . . . We never felt wronged.
“For a long time, the relationship between the city and the local was very strained, but it’s coming back,” Cetin adds. “Any time there’s been a major fire or flooding, [Lauzon] has been right there with us: ‘What do you guys need? How can I help you? Who can I call?’ My personal opinion? He’s done an excellent job thus far.”
As is often the case in small communities, it’s hard to find Barre insiders — city officials, state lawmakers, local activists or civic leaders — who are willing to speak on the record about the mayor. People are reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them. More than a few longtime Barre residents who were contacted for this story either declined to comment on Lauzon or refused to return calls altogether.
One who did was Ward 3 City Councilor Jon Valsangiacomo. In Barre, city elections are ostensibly nonpartisan, though it’s not hard to glean someone’s politics. Valsangiacomo, 35, is a criminal defense lawyer and grandson of longtime Democratic state lawmaker Oreste Valsangiacomo. The younger Valsangiacomo once had a paid internship with Senator Patrick Leahy.
Lauzon is a generous supporter of the Vermont Republican Party and a friend of Governor Jim Douglas. In 2005 and 2006 alone, Lauzon and his accounting firm, Salvador and Babic, gave $2750 to the Vermont GOP’s federal election committee and its congressional hopeful, Martha Rainville.
But despite their political differences, as well as the two men’s tendency to get into heated debates in city council meetings, the Ward 3 councilor has nothing bad to say about the mayor. In fact, it was Lauzon who recruited Valsangiacomo to run for office last year as part of his effort to get more “young blood” on the council.
“I’m not going to throw darts at Thom,” Valsangiacomo says. “He’s got my respect. We don’t always see eye-to-eye on issues, but he sticks his neck out and works his ass off for this city.”
Lyman Amsden, who’s lived in Barre for more than 30 years, agrees. Amsden served as Barre school superintendent in the early 1990s during Lauzon’s stint as Barre’s school board chair. Amsden recalls that Lauzon was instrumental in getting the Barre Town elementary and middle school built.
“Thom is a really high-energy guy who makes things happen,” Amsden says. “For a long time there was a very negative, down-and-out attitude in Barre. Thom brought in a spirit of can-do.”
John Biondolillo chairs the Barre Development Review Board and is co-owner of Berg, Carmolli and Kent Real Estate. Like Amsden, Biondolillo is a big supporter of the mayor.
“Thom’s been awesome for Barre City. That guy goes non-stop,” Biodolillo says. “He’s not one to stand around and admire a problem. He rolls up his sleeves and figures out how to solve it. He’s a breath of fresh air, as far as I’m concerned.”
Biondolillo notes, for example, how Lauzon knocked on his door at 2 a.m. last week, just as the fire department was pumping out his flooded basement. He says the mayor was “just stopping by to make sure everything was all right.”
It’s not “all right” with Joelen Mulvaney, a longtime Barre activist who has butted heads with Lauzon. She describes him as a “typical George Bush-Jim Douglas Republican” who’s just another player in Barre’s “old-boy network.”
Mulvaney says she doesn’t doubt Lauzon’s commitment to Barre, but says it often shows itself in odd, even self-serving ways. She points to a recent controversy over the city’s historic weather vane as indicative of Lauzon’s style. Last December, a Connecticut businessman approached the city with an offer to buy Barre’s antique copper weather vane, which had topped Barre’s old firehouse since 1903. Although the weather vane had never been up for sale, the offers kept coming in, rising from $500,000 to $950,000. Lauzon has stated repeatedly he doesn’t think the city should sell the weather vane. Yet he keeps putting the matter on the city council agenda, Mulvaney observes.
“I’m really concerned about people in leadership, whether it’s the mayor or city council, who want to sell off the community’s assets without considering what that means,” Mulvaney says. “When you own a business, you don’t start selling off assets unless you’re going bankrupt.”
Lauzon contends it wasn’t his place as mayor to reject those solicitations, no matter how outrageous they might have been. “Again, the conspiracy theorists think I’m out there soliciting offers,” Lauzon says. “But I can’t just pick and choose what to present to the public. Is that the kind of government you want?”
Mulvaney was also critical of the mayor’s decision to hire a private company to manage Barre’s community pool. In recent years, the pool has fallen into disrepair, and last summer the Barre City-Barre Town Recreation Board recommended that it stay closed unless the city could find the money to repaint it.
So Lauzon contacted the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections and got a prison work crew to do the job. He landed the crew on short notice, or so Lauzon claims, by pointing out to the commissioner that Barre has the highest per capita population of prisoners on furlough of any town in Vermont.
This year, the recreation board again recommended against opening the pool. But instead of seeking a government fix, Lauzon invited David Pickel, executive director of First in Fitness athletic centers, to inspect the pool and offer his suggestions. According to Lauzon, Pickel was excited about its potential. He recommended some renovations, such as replacing the toilets and showers, repainting the bathhouse and adding sand volleyball and basketball courts.
“By the end of the tour, I said, ‘Dave, you should be running this place, because you have a great attitude,” Lauzon says. And that’s exactly what happened. Lauzon contracted First in Fitness to run, staff and maintain the pool for the summer. Cost: $10,000. The contract hasn’t been finalized, but the pool is scheduled to reopen this week.
Mulvaney and others say it’s not necessarily what the mayor does but how he does it that puts people off. She’s unhappy that he “privatized” a public facility, with its earnings going to a private company rather than city coffers. “We pay a lot of property tax in Barre and it really needs to be spent on the welfare of the community,” Mulvaney says.
Chet Briggs at the Barre Historical Society has even harsher words about Lauzon’s leadership. He says Barre has earned a reputation as a city that “doesn’t pull together well,” and the mayor only exacerbates that divisiveness.
“He’s arrogant, willful and runs roughshod over potential allies,” Briggs avers. “When members of the council try to challenge him, he actually browbeats them.” He singles out Mulvaney, noting the mayor treated her “absolutely viciously in the meetings and shut her down.”
Lauzon denies he has a mean streak, but admits he’s not a consensus-builder the way his predecessor was.
“I think Peter Anthony is a fine man, but Peter and I handle things very differently,” Lauzon concedes. “I think what builds consensus is results. Sometimes you can talk an issue to death. Committees are great, and certainly you want public input . . . but there are certain things that just need to be done.”
For example, Lauzon says that for years he heard people complaining about how the lobbies in City Hall and the Opera House needed a fresh coat of paint. One day, he got fed up with the inaction and paid someone $2500 out of his own pocket to pick a color and paint them. “Right away, people came down here and started complaining that it’s too dark or it’s too bright,” he says. “Today, everybody says it looks great.”
But it’s one thing to paint lobbies and fix swimming pools; it’s quite another to deal with some of the city’s more persistent problems, such as poverty and drug use. Last December, Lauzon made headlines when he helped organize “Operation Granite Streets,” a series of high-profile drug busts of open-air street dealers in downtown Barre. The crackdown, which involved more than 65 federal, state and local police, netted about 30 suspects. According to Barre Police Chief Tim Bombardier, there has since been a significant decline in downtown drug dealing.
But Mulvaney questions the long-term benefits of those high-profile arrests. And as executive director of New Directions for Barre, a community coalition focused on reducing youth-risk behavior, she has some experience with underage tobacco, drug and alcohol use.
“Those were not people who lived in mansions and drove around in fancy cars,” she says. “They were low-level dealers who live in the local rooming house, who were drug users.” Mulvaney points out that one of the arrested individuals has since died of an overdose. None of them, she says, could have gotten themselves into a drug rehab program, because there’s a year-long wait for beds.
Mulvaney emphasizes that her criticisms of Lauzon are not a reflection of the work he’s done on behalf of her organization. Still, she feels Lauzon’s “off-the-cuff” remarks about putting drug dealers to death reflects a lack of deeper understanding about how drugs and alcohol affect the poor and disenfranchised members in their community.
For his part, Lauzon has no regrets about his capital-punishment remark, except to say that the sound bite got more attention than his underlying message — that Vermont needs to get tough on the high-level dealers while also offering more treatment options for addicts. “They’re now mixing meth with strawberry Kool-Aid and calling it ‘Strawberry Quick’ so younger kids like the taste,” he says. “That’s cruel. I’m sorry, but some of these drug dealers are just evil.”
Lauzon has taken some heat from local citizens for his tough-guy persona — for example, his idea for Barre to adopt a 10 p.m. citywide curfew for anyone under 16. And earlier this year, he got into a legal dust-up with Danny Garr, owner of the downtown strip club Planet Rock, after the city amended Garr’s entertainment license. Apparently, a state liquor inspector had entered the club and saw a patron with his head buried in the breasts of one of the dancers, a violation of Barre’s rule requiring dancers to remain 3 feet away from their customers. Garr filed suit against the city, the mayor and city councilors and won a $7500 settlement.
Though the city lost that battle, Lauzon makes no apologies for the position he took. “Believe me, I’m not anti-nudity and I’m not a prude. I am heterosexual and I drink beer,” Lauzon declares with a laugh. “What does offend me is business owners who don’t play by the rules.”
At times, Lauzon sounds more like a candidate for governor than a mayor with relatively weak powers under the city charter. But if anyone is wondering whether Lauzon has higher political aspirations, he insists he’s planning to run for just one more three-year term as mayor before getting out of politics for good.
“Will I be remembered as the mayor who everyone agreed with? No,” he says. “But will I be remembered as the mayor who got things done? I hope so.”