A new mayor’s abrupt resignation sparks debate in Newport

Former Newport Mayor Beth Barnes at home on Tuesday, June 13, 2023. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

On May 22, Newport’s mayor stunned the city when she announced her resignation just 75 days after taking office. At that evening’s city council meeting, Beth Barnes read aloud a letter alleging that she had been “intimidated and bullied [and] commanded not to do certain things” by fellow council members and the now-retired city manager, Laura Dolgin. 

Barnes was Newport’s first new mayor in 14 years and, to some, represented an injection of new energy and fresh ideas in a city still trying to recover from the EB-5 investment fraud scandal, which left an entire block gutted and dashed hopes of reviving the local economy through promised new development. 

Commonly referred to as “the hole,” the remnants of demolished buildings sit on Main Street at the very center of downtown Newport, fenced off and overgrown with trees. Finding resolution for what many residents consider an eyesore and a reminder of the city’s unfulfilled promise has remained a hot button political issue.

Frustrations have reached a high boil in recent years, with other previous abrupt resignations from the city council. At public meetings, accusations frequently fly between council members and exchanges with members of the public have become increasingly hostile. 

Pam Ladds, a Newport resident who regularly attends council meetings, said Barnes is not alone in feeling bullied. “All of us have experienced abuse from our city officials in the past, which consists of raised voices, temper tantrums, name calling, threats,” she said. 

But some former city officials point the finger elsewhere.

Paul Monette, who was Newport’s mayor from 2009 to 2022, puts the blame for the tone of meetings on some of the residents who attend. “These vocal people, you know, they’ve made it personal.” He added, “A huge, silent majority were concerned about the people who go to the meetings [who] they feel have become abusive under the guise of free speech and transparency.”

Julie Raboin, who served on the council from 2017 to 2019, attributed the hostilities to the former city manager. 

“It became apparent that [Dolgin] was not interested in public input,” Raboin said. “Once people started feeling that [they were] not being listened to, they got angry. And then that just became the status quo. People spoke louder and louder, trying to be heard.”

‘People will want to see you fail’

At the root of Barnes’ premature departure appears to be a fundamental disagreement over the role of the mayor. 

Sitting at her dining room table last week, Barnes spoke to VTDigger in her first in-depth interview since she resigned. 

One of four candidates for the post and the only woman, Barnes campaigned on a promise to “Reenergize Newport,” prioritizing engagement with the community, a solution for “the hole” and protections for Lake Memphremagog, which borders Newport. “We hadn’t had a mayor or a city council that was actually visible, actually out in the community,” said Barnes, who moved to Newport from California a decade ago. “And to me, that’s what being a mayor means.”

It was Barnes’ first time serving in public office, but she recalled feeling optimistic that with a little guidance her “enthusiasm and energy … would be able to win the day and change the town.” 

Barnes recalled eagerly jumping into her new role, attending a virtual training session hosted by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, organizing community hikes and reaching out to mayors in neighboring cities. Ahead of her first council meeting as mayor, she studied videos of past council meetings to learn word-for-word how the former mayor had run them. (The mayor is a member of the city council, which also has a president.)

But almost immediately, Barnes began to encounter gestures of disapproval. 

In one of their first meetings, Dolgin, the city manager, said to her, “People will want to see you fail.” (Dolgin told VTDigger she had “wanted [Barnes] to brace herself emotionally, so that she would be prepared for people to give her feedback that was uncomfortable.”) 

When Dolgin and the council learned that Barnes had reached out to the various department heads to introduce herself, she said she was told she was acting outside the bounds of her role as mayor. 

“I was sent an email [by Laura Dolgin] telling me that I was forbidden to meet any department heads, that Ms. Dolgin would arrange a meeting with all of them with her present,” Barnes said. “But I was not to meet with any city employee one-on-one.”

The substance of the request, if not the tone, is understandable, one national advocate for the city manager form of government said. The city manager is supposed to be the conduit between the city council and staff, according to Jason Grant, director of advocacy at International City/County Management. 

“How [councils] engage that could be different” from one city to another, he said. “What you don’t want is any official contacting any official as they wish without agreement of the council.”

In another case, Barnes contacted Dolgin to get caught up on the status of “the hole.” 

“Her response to me was there’s no urgency on this. And I felt like there was an urgency. I was the new mayor. And I just wanted to be brought up to speed on what was happening,” Barnes said.

When Barnes arranged a meeting with Michael Goldberg, the court-appointed receiver charged with handling the funds from the EB-5 program, council members and the city manager again chastised her by email, she said. 

“The mayor cannot conduct city business without the council’s consent,” Dolgin wrote in an email obtained by VTDigger. “You are running out ahead of long-term projects that require sensitivity and I am concerned your rogue and unbridled interference will cause damage for the city.” 

“Stop diminishing our roles by overstepping yours,” council member Chris Vachon added in a subsequent email. “Get trained in your roles and responsibilities.” 

Barnes said she resigned before the scheduled meeting with Goldberg.

Council member Clark Curtis declined to speak with VTDigger for this story. Council members Vachon, Kevin Charboneau and John Wilson did not respond to voicemails or emails requesting comment.

The dynamic between the new mayor, the city manager and the rest of the city council came to a head in two executive sessions in May that Barnes says violated Vermont’s open meeting laws.

Executive sessions are meetings held without the public present. State law limits discussion during those sessions to predetermined advertised agenda items that meet specific exceptions to the requirement that public bodies conduct business in public. Barnes would not disclose what exactly was said, citing fear of legal repercussions. 

“I walked in and there was another physical agenda,” Barnes said. “I have it, but I cannot show it to you because it would be a violation. They crucified me. Every single step I had made in that two months was picked apart.”

Barnes said the executive sessions were directed by the city manager. “Laura led the charge. Always. And (the other council members) fell into lockstep.”

‘A shock to my system’

Dolgin was Newport’s city manager for almost eight years before retiring on June 2 and leaving her home in the neighboring town of Derby. She told VTDigger her retirement was unrelated to city politics. 

In a phone interview from Virginia, where Dolgin now lives, she described her interpretation of the charter. 

“Newport is a city manager form of government,” she said. “The mayor is mostly ceremonial and facilitates the meeting, sets the agenda. There’s a clause in the charter that says the mayor is ultimately responsible for the finances and that sort of thing — but that’s ceremonial because it’s the city manager’s responsibility.”

Still, city managers are not elected officials, but rather are appointed by the elected officials on the city council. In Newport, the manager may receive a salary of up to $105,000, according to a recent posting for Dolgin’s former job. The mayor receives an annual stipend of $2,000, while council members are paid $1,750. 

Dolgin declined to comment on Barnes’ allegations of bullying, only referring to them as “sensational.” She would not comment on the executive sessions, citing confidentiality and the concern that Barnes might be preparing a lawsuit. 

The state largely leaves municipalities like Newport to interpret and enforce charters for themselves. 

A 2014 guide produced by the Secretary of State’s Office acknowledged, “There are a number of situations in which two or more officials have potentially conflicting authority. This can cause confusion, particularly when the officials are not communicating well with one another.” 

Newport’s charter, which was last updated in 1966, is vague about how the mayor and the city manager should co-exist. 

It states that the city manager is the “administrative head of the municipal government under the direction and supervision of the Council,” while the mayor is the “Chief Executive Officer of the City.” There is notable overlap in the way the roles are described, but the city manager’s role is commonly considered administrative, while the council and mayor are responsible for directing policy. 

“The value of [a city manager form of government],” according to Grant of International City/County Management, “is that it forces dialogue.” Since the council must have a majority vote when making policy decisions, “no one individual should be able to dictate their will.” 

At that level, the city manager role is advisory. In theory, Grant said, “city managers actually have no power to drive decisions. City managers cannot vote. They can be [fired] at any time. The idea that the city manager is driving [decisions] assumes that the city council has decided that they have no power, which is false.” 

Monette, the former mayor, said he had worked well with Dolgin. “You go out and you talk to people. You promote the community. But I would never get involved with the day-to-day. That’s why you have a city manager to do that.”

Melissa Petterssen, who served on the council for four years, saw the matter in simple terms: “[Dolgin] was a strong personality. [Barnes] couldn’t handle that.”

But former council president Raboin described Dolgin as “a very controlling figure” and said council members faced enormous pressure to conform to the recommendations Dolgin made to them. 

In response to the allegations of bullying, Raboin defended members of the council, several of whom she had worked with, saying, “The pattern of communication had been in place for so long that I don’t think they realized the level of dysfunction that they were all participating in.”

Barnes admits she was unprepared for the way the city manager and the council interacted with each other and the public. “I know that Newport has always kind of had its own M.O.,” Barnes said. “I just had never been so close to it. And it was a little bit of a shock to my system.” 

‘An open slate’

Today, Newport is left without a mayor and without the city manager who played such an outsize role in the city’s politics for the past eight years. With the council recruiting applicants to fill the city manager position and a special mayoral election slated for August, the city is left in a state of uncertainty.

Monette expressed concern about the “very, very negative impact” Barnes’ resignation has had on the community. “I hear it kind of doesn’t make Newport look good around the state,” he said, adding that he thinks there is a “silent majority, who are very disappointed in [Barnes] with what happened. They think this is a step backwards.”

Others strongly disagree. They see the moment as full of promise. Newport resident Pam Ladds called it a “growth point,” adding, “What happened is shining a light on what needs to change. You can’t cover wounds up — they don’t heal.”

Barnes wants to see the city look forward and take advantage of the new engagement her resignation has prompted. 

“More people are coming to the city council meetings. Oh my gosh, it’s been standing room only. That never happened before,” said Barnes. “I don’t think it’s about me anymore. I think it’s about the people mobilizing in a really good, positive way.”

Others agree that the potential is there for the city to shake off old habits and enter a new, more cooperative phase. 

“There hasn’t been an opportunity like this in a decade where there’s such an open slate,” said Raboin. “This could be the start of a whole new era of positivity and growth and co-creation of the city that everybody says they want.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: A new mayor’s abrupt resignation sparks debate in Newport.