Jim Kenyon: Norwich group stands up for the upper crust

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 03-11-2023 9:52 PM

The names Manu Tesone and Omer Trajman didn’t appear on Norwich’s Town Meeting ballot, but their fingerprints were all over Tuesday’s outcomes.

Tesone and Trajman are the founders — and pied pipers — of a group called Stand Up For Norwich formed last summer. In its early days, the community-action group signed up more than 100 members. Judging from Tuesday’s election results, I’d be surprised if its base hasn’t grown.

According to its website, Stand Up was launched to “bring together a coalition of like-minded Norwich residents.” Or put another way, a coalition of privileged white people.

Stand Up’s three preferred Selectboard candidates each won Tuesday. By my math that gives Stand Up, which goes by the acronym SUFN, a slim majority on the five-member board.

Tesone and Trajman also succeeded in getting voters to support their law-and-order agenda.

Why a rural Vermont town with 3,700 residents needs a police presence seven days a week, 20 hours a day is beyond me. The town would be better served putting its money into addressing substance use and mental health problems than adding a fifth armed officer with arrest powers.

The proposal to hire an additional cop that passed, 681-574, was only “advisory.” Tesone and Trajman collected more than 230 signatures to make it a binding vote, but the previous Selectboard wouldn’t go along.

Now the new board will have final say. With Pamela Smith and Priscilla Vincent joining Chairwoman Marcia Calloway, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before Stand Up’s wish comes true.

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Tesone and Trajman are big believers that the more cops Norwich has, the better.

After Police Chief Simon Keeling abruptly resigned in June and a patrol officer left shortly thereafter, Tesone and Trajman sounded the alarm.

With a mission focused on “restoring public safety,” they took to the town’s Listserv and spoke at board meetings about the “collapse” of the police department, which for a while was down to one full-time officer.

“In the last nine months, unfortunately we have suffered the consequences of what happens when police are not available to us,” Tesone said at a board meeting in December.

The scare tactics worked.

Board incumbents Rob Gere and Aaron Lamperti, who didn’t agree with Stand Up’s call for more police, suffered lopsided defeats.

Tesone and Trajman aren’t taking credit — at least, publicly — for the election results. I wanted to talk with them, but after a brief and civil email exchange with Tesone in which I mentioned setting up an interview with him and Trajman, I didn’t hear back.

Who are these guys?

Tesone was a managing partner at a private equity investment firm in New York form 2011 to 2018, according to his LinkedIn profile. He’s also an “experienced investor” and entrepreneur.

Trajman was a founder and CEO of a software development company in San Francisco, according to his online profile. Trajman and his wife, Lily, purchased their Norwich house for $1.1 million in 2014, town property records indicate. (Tesone’s name didn’t pop up in an online search of property records.) Lily Trajman is Norwich’s new town clerk, winning an uncontested race Tuesday to replace Bonnie Munday, who retired.

Tesone and Omer Trajman argue their coalition doesn’t play politics. “We are conscious of the fact that while SUFN has attracted residents who share our concerns for public safety and administrative mismanagement, that doesn’t mean that everyone has a common view of other issues,” Tesone responded via email Thursday. “For that reason, SUFN explicitly did not make a statement of endorsement for candidates, who also don’t agree on every issue.”

As I wrote back to Tesone, I don’t buy it. Clearly, Stand Up viewed Gere and Lamperti as threats to its agenda.

“The collapse of our police and (public works) departments, in particular, has only confirmed the fact that our current Selectboard members and town manager are leading Norwich in the wrong direction,” Stand Up states on its website.

Apparently, Calloway wasn’t lumped in with other board members. On Tuesday, the same day that residents were voting on the three Selectboard races, Tesone posted on the Norwich Listserv:

“Marcia has stood alone as the sole Selectboard member prioritizing the community that she serves.”

Sounds like an endorsement to me.

In our phone conversation Friday, Calloway, who defeated Gere, downplayed Stand Up’s role in the board races. It was more about residents wanting a “new tone,” she told me.

Getting Stand Up and others involved in town government is “healthy, as long as everyone is respectful,” she said.

Not all Town Meeting votes went Stand Up’s way.

The nonprofit Norwich Farm Foundation, which is Trajman’s pet project (I mean that, literally), received only 25.5% of the vote in its bid for a 10-year property tax exemption. (To Stand Up’s credit, it acknowledged before the vote that Trajman serves on the organization’s board of directors.)

Stand Up also questioned whether Norwich should reduce the late penalty charged on property taxes from 8% to 4%.

“Given the current interest rates, a 4% rate may create an incentive for those who can afford to delay payment,” Trajman wrote in a Listserv posting.

That might be how some rich people think, but most folks who fall behind on their property tax payments do so because they’re experiencing financial struggles.

On Tuesday, 85% of Norwich voters supported reducing the late penalty.

Finally, something worth standing up for.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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