Mary Houle says she’s sick and tired of being painted as the “town SOB.” But that won’t stop the two-term select board member from doing what she thinks is best for Richmond, a burg known for its neighborliness and “green” ethic.
While local news stories have lamented the decline in citizen participation on select boards, school boards and fire departments — the volunteer organizations that do the heavy lifting in small Vermont towns — little ink has been devoted to the flip side of that coin: what to do when the actions of one elected official drive others away.
Supporters of the sharp-tongued Houle, 58, point to her brash, confrontational style and her role in recent town controversies as proof that she’s doing what voters elected her to do — namely, cleaning up town government and holding public employees accountable for their actions.
But Houle’s detractors counter that there’s a difference between vigilance and venom. Richmond officials past and present have described her as “aggressive,” “intimidating” and “frightening.” Even some of Houle’s friends and supporters admit she can be “off-putting” and “bombastic,” with “a bit of a temper.” One current Richmond employee, who declined to be identified, says only, “Sorry, but I like my job. I’m scared of her.”
Who is Mary Houle? She’s an über-engaged elected official who hasn’t missed a single select board meeting in the past five years, a volunteer for unpaid boards, committees and commissions, and a vociferous advocate for property rights and fewer regulations. Over the years, she’s served on the Richmond Planning Commission, the Chittenden Solid Waste District and the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission. In 2008, she ran as a Republican for the Vermont House of Representatives, and lost.
A longtime farmer, master gardener and member of the governor’s Urban and Community Forestry Council — she owns a 76-acre orchard — Houle has for years planted flowers in the town center and donated trees to the local cemetery and playground, all at no cost to taxpayers. She pays her own way for public trainings and seminars and even got schooled as a “road scholar” — a training usually reserved for public-works crews — in order to better understand highway budgets.
As one supporter put it, “You’d be hard pressed to find anyone more committed to Richmond than Mary Houle.”
Then again, other locals suggest that she ought to be … committed. To say that she doesn’t hold back in municipal meetings would be an understatement. Houle has referred to the chair of the planning commission as “the little Hitler of Richmond.” She’s called the current police chief a “Marxist” and a “crybaby” due to his dismay over an employment evaluation. Recently, she referred to Seven Days as “the communist newspaper” in Burlington.
But despite her often-colorful oratory, Houle was not eager to be interviewed for a newspaper profile. As she put it, “I’m not interested in any more bullshit being written about me.”
Houle has generated some less-than-flattering press, and her enemies are more than willing to point out her skeletons. Chief among them: a 1994 Vermont Supreme Court case that upheld Houle’s conviction for assaulting a stroke victim under her care. According to court records, Houle, then a licensed practicing nurse, was charged with shackling her patient’s wrists and ankles to the bedposts and slapping him repeatedly. Houle never denied her use of restraints, but claimed it wasn’t cruel or abusive since she’d done it to protect the patient and herself.
Her response to the charge? “Ancient history.”
Since April this year, Houle has been embroiled in a public spat with Jonesville entrepreneur Dan Giangreco. For months, he has been posting frequent, tongue-in-cheek barbs about Houle on his blog, rebelmarket.blogspot.com, due to her opposition to his opening the Long Trail Community Market. Houle has taken all of Giangreco’s farcical taunts with dead seriousness, and has asked the Richmond Police to investigate him for possible “cyberbullying.” She even tried to get him arrested for trespassing, albeit fictitiously, on her property along the Winooski River.
Not everyone in town is amused by the feud. Steve Bower, who served with Houle when he chaired the Richmond Planning Commission, alleges that her “poor judgment” and “behavior inappropriate for a select board member” have crossed the line into “abuse of power.” He claims she is often “intimidating,” “belittling” and “disrespectful” to town employees, volunteers and fellow elected officials. Bower claims several have resigned just to avoid dealing with Houle.
Among them is former Jonesville Health Officer Mel Pritchett, who left last month after seven years in that post. According to Pritchett, a few years ago a tenant living on Houle’s property asked him to inspect a rental trailer for possible health-code violations.
Pritchett, who was empowered by law to investigate such matters, claims that Houle approached him years later at a select board meeting and “totally blindsided me with accusations and threats over this incident that had happened several years earlier, and threatened to call the police if I ever went on her property again.” Pritchett, who expressed bafflement over the encounter, described it as “totally irrational.”
“In lieu of some of the complaints I’ve heard from other volunteers and city workers, I decided I didn’t want to risk being put in an awkward position of being around her again,” he added. “It just wasn’t worth it.”
In fact, Houle has had a hand in the recent resignations of several Richmond officials. They’ve included town administrator Ron Rodjenski, who in April was placed on paid administrative leave, then later resigned, after it was revealed he’d had an affair with the town’s auditor. A day later, select board chair Bob Marquis resigned for undisclosed reasons.
“I don’t think anyone doubts why he stepped down,” Bower asserts. “It was over the acrimonious and contentious nature of the select board’s business, of which, I would say, Mary Houle was far and away the main instigator.” Marquis didn’t respond to Seven Days’ request for comment.
Others, however, admire Houle’s handling of the Rodjenski situation.
“God bless her,” says Marie Thomas, a former reporter for the Times Ink, Richmond’s community newspaper, and a former employee of Mount Mansfield Community Television. “I’m convinced that if Mary hadn’t been there and acted as quickly as she did, we’d still have Ron Rodjenski, and the town is better off without him … As far as I’m concerned, she said the emperor had no clothes.”
Last month, Houle again became a lightning rod for public criticism over her involvement in the on-again, off-again resignation of Richmond Police Chief William “Joe” Miller. Miller, a 40-year veteran of law enforcement, submitted his letter of resignation to the board in August. A month later, more than 400 Richmond residents signed a petition asking him to stay, resulting in the select board rejecting his resignation.
At a September 11 public meeting on the matter, about 50 people came forward to speak, most in favor of the chief. During that same meeting, Houle was ousted as the board’s liaison to the police department.
Miller has yet to publicly disclose why he resigned, though he told Seven Days that reports claiming it was in response to a poor job evaluation from Houle was “absolutely not accurate.”
Miller still hasn’t announced whether he intends to stay or go —“There are still some things we’re working out between the board and myself,” he says — nor would he elaborate on the real reasons behind the resignation letter.
Bower has publicly called for Houle to step down. Fran Thomas, head of the Richmond Historical Society, shares his view. Thomas had a run-in with Houle after she approved a public memorial for a Richmond soldier who was killed in Iraq — without consulting the historical society or checking in with the select board. The job had to be stopped mid-construction when questions arose about the memorial’s size, design and location.
Houle says it’s “disgraceful” that anyone would object to a “Gold Star” mother erecting a memorial bench for her fallen son. As for the suggestion that she resign her position a year and a half before her term is up, Houle says that’s not gonna happen.
“I grew up in this hillbilly town. My family’s been here since 1959,” Houle says. “I’m not cutting and running. I’m not going home to cry. What I’m doing is the job that I was voted to do on the select board.”
Nor does she plan to ease up on Richmond’s police chief. Houle has suggested that the attorney general investigate the department for possible wrongdoing, though she declined to provide details. She says Chief Miller needs to “piss or get off the pot,” and “stop holding the town hostage” with his indecision over his future with Richmond.
“The reason I was approached for this job is because I’m outspoken, I don’t have a hidden agenda and I don’t tolerate bullshit,” Houle says. “When I ask questions, I ask tough questions. And when I get answers, I expect honest answers. If people who work for this town and cash a paycheck are tired of being held responsible, then they can be replaced.”