Town Clerk Out In Pomfret
Lynne Leavitt hugs her husband Tim after being voted out of office as town clerk at Pomfret Town Meeting Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Leavitt will be replaced by Pomfret native Becky Fielder. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Pomfret — The public campaign by current and former town officials to oust incumbent Town Clerk Lynne Leavitt came to fruition at the annual Town Meeting on Tuesday, but it wasn’t the closely contested election that residents had anticipated.
Becky Fielder, who decided on Friday to run against Leavitt, acknowledged that she owed much of her lopsided 139-50 victory to a group of influential townspeople who in the days leading up to the election made phone calls and took to the Pomfret listserv on her behalf.
“That certainly worked to my advantage,” said the 36-year-old Fielder, who moments after her election assumed Leavitt’s seat next to other town officials on the Town Hall stage.
Leavitt had been elected five straight years since she first ran in 2009, but apparently had fallen out of favor with past and present town officials, who occasionally referred to her as “The Boss” when she was out of earshot, said residents familiar with town office politics.
While few people seemed surprised that Fielder pulled off the win on Tuesday, her nearly 3-to-1 vote total was not expected.
“It’s a relief to me,” said Leavitt. “It’s become too political.”
Doug Tuthill, a former selectman, announced on the listserv Friday night that he supported Fielder because the community needed a town clerk who “stays out of politics all together.”
In the last couple of years, Pomfret has been a town divided. Elected auditors accused other town officials of locking them out of their office and changing the password to the town computer without their knowledge.
Last September, an upset resident showed up at town offices before a meeting and threatened to whack a selectman with a flower basket.
Last week, Selectman Neil Lamson resigned, stating he could no longer work with Chairman Michael Reese.
After Tuesday’s vote, Selectman Mark Warner said Leavitt was made the “scapegoat” for what has ailed town government.
“It was a clash of personalities,” he said, adding that the campaign against her was “well-organized.”
Attempts to recruit a viable challenger appeared to come up empty — until last Friday.
Fielder was waiting in the lodge at Suicide Six ski area for her son, when she overheard a conversation that her father, Frank Perron, who works at the ski area, was having with Carlene Hewitt, a former town auditor. They were talking about finding someone to challenge Leavitt.
“You could do that job,” Perron told his daughter.
Hewitt encouraged her to enter the race.
“We needed a change,” said Hewitt, following Tuesday’s Town Meeting.
Fielder, who has worked as an office manager and handled Internet sales for a ski shop in Burlington, agreed to consider it.
By Friday evening, she had posted her intentions on Facebook to challenge Leavitt from the floor at Town Meeting.
Endorsements on the listserv soon followed.
“Fantastic news about Becky’s decision to run,” wrote auditor JoAnn Webb. “She’s an old friend and would be great.”
Supporters played up Fielder’s deep family ties in the town of roughly 1,000 residents. Her father and grandfather had served the town in various capacities, ranging from chief of the volunteer fire department to selectman, respectively. Fielder grew up in Pomfret and moved back to town seven years ago with her husband. The couple has two young children.
“She is one of the next generation and I am proud of her being willing to serve her community just as her family has done for years,” wrote Tuthill.
The race was expected to be close. So close, in fact, that Reese and Town Moderator Kevin Geiger decided to have separate talks with Leavitt prior to Town Meeting Day.
A plan was in place to honor retiring town Treasurer Hazel Harrington, who had served as Pomfret’s treasurer, town clerk or both since 1973, at Town Meeting. Leavitt was scheduled to oversee the short ceremony and present her with small gifts.
“(Reese) called me to say some people were worried that I was trying to sway votes,” said Leavitt.
Reese and Geiger said they weren’t picking sides in the race; they just wanted to make sure the ceremony didn’t take place until after the vote for town clerk.
“I felt some people could think it was improper; that (Leavitt) was playing on emotions,” said Geiger.
Added Reese, “I was merely trying to tamp down concerns. I probably overreacted.”
Leavitt agreed to hold off on the ceremony until after the vote.
With the town clerk’s race among the first pieces of business to be voted on, it was standing-room-only by the time the meeting began at 9 a.m. Warner asked those in the crowd of 200 or so residents who were standing not to block the exits.
“We are overloaded,” he told the crowd.
Residents said they had come expecting a floor fight, of sorts, leading up to the town clerk election, which would be decided by paper ballot. But it didn’t materialize.
Harrington was among the few people who took to the microphone. Making it clear that she supported Leavitt, she said, “I don’t know why anyone would want to replace one of the most knowledgeable town clerks the town has ever had.”
Leavitt declined the opportunity to address voters.
Her opponent kept her comments brief.
“Nothing would make me happier than to serve my town,” said Fielder, who will earn $21,600 a year in the part-time job.
Shortly after the vote, Leavitt presided over the ceremony to thank Harrington for her decades of service.
“It’s been an honor and privilege to work with you,” Leavitt told Harrington.
Residents gave Harrington, 76, a standing ovation.
In other Town Meeting news:
∎ Lamson, the selectman who resigned last week with two years left on his term, was soundly defeated, 156-29, in his bid to unseat Reese.
∎ Residents approved a measure by voice vote to switch to a fiscal year budget, starting July 1. As a result, property taxes will be due in August and February rather than August and November.
∎ A budget of $448,298 was approved to cover town and highway expenses until the start of the new fiscal year. “The 2013 budget surplus of about $420,000 enables the town to pay for the six-month transition to a July fiscal year without raising additional funds,” said the Selectboard.
∎ Voters signed off on a proposed annual budget of $1,709,808 for town and highway expenses, starting July 1. The budget requires $850,644 to be raised through taxes. It’s about a 5 percent decrease from last year’s budget.
∎ The business portion of the school meeting took less than 20 minutes to complete in the afternoon. Without any discussion, the 75 or so voters who stayed past lunch approved the proposed budget of $1,186,265. The budget is down about $7,000 from a year ago.
∎ Voters will be back at the polls shortly. A special election is scheduled for April 9 to fill Lamson’s unexpired term. At Tuesday’s meeting, Tuthill announced his plans to seek the seat.