- Tim Newcomb
Few people knew exactly what had prompted the July 16 special meeting of the Vergennes City Council. Even some aldermen were only aware that their city manager, Daniel Hofman, had received a vague complaint about the local police department.
Hofman prepared two documents for that night's gathering. First, an agenda listing the lone discussion item: "Accusations that the Vergennes Police Department is demoralizing and intimidating people." Second, a compilation of text messages between mayor Jeff Fritz and himself.
Before the evening was over, long-simmering disagreements over the city's police department would erupt into an open clash between Fritz and deputy mayor Lynn Donnelly, with Hofman the apparent catalyst.
Fritz, who as mayor sat on the seven-member city council, announced he'd resign. Three aldermen soon followed — leaving Vergennes with no functioning legislative body. Lacking a quorum, the council cannot act, and the city is scrambling to schedule a special fall election. Some 230 residents, nearly a tenth of the city's population, have signed an open letter demanding that the council and Hofman explain what happened.
The texts that triggered Vergennes' meltdown began on the morning of July 15, when Fritz wrote to Hofman that he believed citizens felt intimidated by the police department. He said a civilian advisory group, an idea he had been championing for the previous month, could change that.
"I don't give two shits about their morale," Fritz wrote of the police. "They've demoralized citizens long enough." And if two skeptical council members — deputy mayor Donnelly and Alderman David Austin — did not "simmer down" about the idea of civilian advisers, he would take them "to the woodshed."
Hofman said he took Fritz's comments as a formal complaint. Less than an hour later, the manager sent the city council an email requesting an emergency meeting. The next evening, as 70 residents watched online, Hofman displayed the texts and read them aloud, eliciting gasps from the audience. Fritz agreed to resign and logged off the meeting.
He tendered his official written resignation 11 days later. He had eight months left to serve in a position that pays a modest stipend.
Hofman has defended his decision to read the text messages to the audience, maintaining that he had no intention of embarrassing the mayor. He said he only displayed the texts to protect the city from liability in the event of someone "going out and killing themselves" because of police harassment.
While some residents doubt that Fritz's public shaming was a response to his push for police reform, in his mind the connection is clear.
"I pushed some buttons, absolutely," he said. "A trap was laid for me, and I walked right into it. Shame on me."
The disagreements that came to a head in July began a year ago. Soon after his election as mayor in 2019, Fritz backed a proposal to trim two officers from the eight-person Vergennes Police Department to help address a potential 20-cent property tax increase.
The department's budget of $890,000 represents 34 percent of the city's spending plan, a higher percentage than virtually any other Vermont town or city, according to a recent VTDigger.org analysis.
At a packed public meeting last summer, Fritz said the department's staffing was not sustainable without a significant tax increase.
But many of the more than 50 people in attendance seemed willing to foot the bill after Chief George Merkel said the cuts would undermine public safety. Deputy mayor Donnelly sided with the chief. She called the proposed budget reduction a "horrible decision" that would set the department back years. The council ultimately rejected the cuts.
This summer, Donnelly and Fritz were at odds again, this time over the creation of a police advisory board. Fritz pitched the idea at a June meeting in the wake of George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police officers. He stressed that his proposal was not an indictment of the department but rather a recognition that more citizen oversight would be good for all.
The council agreed to let a committee study the concept, though some expressed skepticism. Alderman Austin said he did not think the city had a policing problem. "We're not Burlington. We're not Bennington. We're, thankfully, not St. Albans," he said, in an apparent reference to recent police problems in those cities.
Donnelly added, "Right now, I would not think that this was in the best interest of the police department or the city council."
Still, acknowledging that she "might" change her mind depending on the committee's findings, Donnelly voted in favor of it. When the panel returned a month later to ask for more time to study the issue, however, she balked.
"We can't spend the whole summer doing this," she said. "It's only dividing people. It's not helping."
Several committee members said there seemed to be a growing opposition to their work — and attributed that to Donnelly.
Donnelly had begun distributing signs that read, "We Support Our Local Police," which were often placed next to Black Lives Matter signs. She told Seven Days that a good friend of Chief Merkel's asked for her help. "With the morale of the poor police right now, I [thought] it was a great idea," Donnelly said.
Study committee member Nial Rele, who moved to Vergennes three years ago, said he felt personally targeted by the signs supporting the police, viewing them as a way of telling those in favor of more citizen oversight "to know our place." Learning of Donnelly's role in the signs' appearance only solidified that belief.
"This was an attempt — directly and indirectly — to exert power and influence over our conversation," Rele said.
Committee member Alicia Grangent said she, too, felt pushback from the police. This spring, the department posted a Black Lives Matter sign in front of the station. After the committee's second meeting, the sign disappeared. "The city is in turmoil," she said.
The pressure eventually became too much for Catherine Brooks, who chaired the group until stepping down last month. "I found the criticism demoralizing," she said. "I didn't feel that all members of the city council were giving us a fair opportunity."
On July 14, the council granted the committee only half the additional study time it requested. Fritz sent his texts to Hofman the next morning.
"Watch me pack the house on 8/11," he wrote, referring to the date the committee's report is due. "I will not be humiliated like I was last year in the budget meeting." Texting Hofman again later in the day, Fritz sent a meme of a woman saying, "Honey, you've got a big storm coming."
"Is that a threat?" Hofman replied.
Fritz said it wasn't but that Donnelly had "pissed a lot of folks off." When Hofman responded that Fritz should not be threatening anyone — Donnelly or himself — Fritz replied, "Oh heavens. Apologies. It's been a rough day. I was trying to be humorous. Forgive me."
Hofman was in constant contact with Donnelly during this time. The two called each other 18 times between the morning of July 15 and the special meeting the following night, according to phone logs that a resident obtained in a public records request and shared with Seven Days. Six of those calls occurred during Hofman's exchange of texts with Fritz.
Hofman said the deputy mayor had "zero input" into his responses. He said he informed Donnelly and Austin about the messages because he felt he could be liable if "something happened to them." Asked if he truly thought their lives were at risk, Hofman said the messages "speak for themselves."
Hofman has faced intense pressure from residents to explain why he publicized the exchange. An hourlong interview with Seven Days provided little clarity. Hofman said he considered the entire text chain a formal complaint against the police department, although only a handful of messages actually mention the department.
He said he displayed the conversation at the meeting because Fritz did not provide specific details to back up his "accusation." Instead, the mayor said at the start of the meeting that while he was unaware of any specific complaint, some people nevertheless feel intimidated by the police.
"I mean, how can you say that people feel intimidated and demoralized by the police and not bring us anything specific to the table?" Hofman asked.
Fritz said he believes Hofman had always planned to disclose the messages. Hofman's responses in the digital conversation, he said, "were absolutely tailor-made for public consumption."
Even if the city manager's big reveal was spur-of-the-moment, Donnelly was ready for it. The deputy mayor posted an invitation on Front Porch Forum on July 15, asking her neighbors on "both sides" of the policing issue to watch the council meeting at her house. Then, when Hofman referred to the mayor's texts during the meeting, she asked for the messages to be displayed on the screen. As soon as Hofman finished reading the exchange aloud, she read a prepared statement condemning Fritz for his comments and asking him to resign.
"There was no coup," she said. "There was never an intention for a coup. It sort of fell into place."
The rest of the city council was not convinced.
Alderman Bill Benton emailed Hofman as the meeting ended and asked with whom the manager had shared the texts beforehand, because "it sure seemed like Lynn was ready."
"This evening was a public embarrassment and we need to make sure it does not happen again," Benton wrote.
When Hofman said he had informed Donnelly and Austin about the messages because of the "threats towards the three of us," Benton replied, "It sounds like an ambush to me."
"This should have been a full council discussion," Benton wrote. "I'm disappointed in you." Three days later, Benton resigned. In a letter, he wrote that the community is filled with "vitriol and mistrust" and he lacks the time and energy to help fix it.
Two other aldermen — Mark Koenig and Tara Brooks — resigned a week later. Brooks cited a heavy workload from her job; Koenig said he could no longer work with people who have "lied to me on numerous occasions" and "have no interest in repairing the immense harm done."
He also apologized for supporting Hofman's hiring. "It seems clear to me now that placing trust and confidence in him was a grave mistake; a mistake for which we are all now paying a high price," Koenig wrote.
Hofman, a 29-year-old New York State native, was hired late last year. After earning his master's degree in public administration in 2018, he worked for a South Carolina municipality and then became city manager of Guyton, a small town in eastern Georgia. The mayor fired him after six months for alleged poor decision making, according to news reports, but a majority on the city council later overrode the decision, voted to reinstate him and agreed to pay him missed wages.
Donnelly, who was named mayor after Fritz's resignation, defended the manager and said that, despite claims to the contrary, she has no intention of quashing the police advisory board. In fact, she said, she fully supports the idea.
She said she was ashamed of her colleagues for giving up on the city when it needed them most.
"I didn't quit or leave town because we had garbage on the corners, or there were couches on the front steps of Main Street, or we had police that were drug addicts," she said, an apparent reference to former police chief Michael Lowe, who was arrested in 2009 after a high-profile fall from grace that he attributed to a drug addiction.
"It's taken us 30 years to get to where we are today," Donnelly continued. "People are buying houses, selling houses, building houses in Vergennes because Vergennes is what it is. There's a very low crime rate. People are friendly. They trust each other."
"That credit," she added, "belongs to the wonderful police force."