Doug Willey: Public Defender of the NEK

127481-0This week, to my great sadness, Doug Willey passed away.

At the time of his death, Mr. Willey was the chief public defender in the three counties of the Northeast Kingdom,  the region where I also practice law.  He was a tireless advocate for the most unpopular among us, those accused of crimes large and small.  He carried out his job with passion and conviction, but also with a healthy dose of realism. His sense of justice was profound and over the years, he and his right-hand investigator Chip Troiano have touched thousands of lives and played their role in forcing the State to prove its cases against the accused beyond a reasonable doubt, as all good criminal defense attorneys do.

He knew the ins and outs and complexities of the courts, corrections systems and  prosecutors, and  that knowledge was voluminous and sophisticated.  He was generous with his knowledge, sharing his information and experience with newer lawyers like me, and in any encounter with Doug, I could always count on a useful–and usually hilarious–insight.

I admired Doug for all these reasons, but there was more to it than that: I’ve always felt a special kinship with him, because he’d taken an unconventional path to the practice of law, similar to my own.  Like me, he never went to formal law school, instead reading, or apprenticing for the law under the Vermont’s Law Office Study program.

After serving in the Marine Corps, Doug made his living as a logger, woodsman and accomplished horseman, operating out of a cabin in Walden, Vermont.  He then made the leap to working as an assistant at one local firm, and then ultimately landed at Sleigh & Williams in St. Johnsbury, the same firm where about 15 years later, I would also do my Vermont law study clerkship.

By the time I got to my clerkship, Doug had already taken the bar exam, been admitted to practice, and moved on to manage the public defender system for the entire region.  In a geographically isolated area marked by high rates of poverty, joblessness, and substance abuse,  the public defender caseload is high and the challenges are many.  Doug handled it all with a dry wit and a steady temperament and he never sought publicity or the limelight for himself.    But in the courtroom and with prosecutors he pulled no punches.  He was the very first criminal defense attorney I saw in action out here in Essex County, as he  aggressively tried cases or negotiated fair plea deals as needed with our local State’s Attorney.

Most people remember seeing Doug in the Caledonia County Courthouse in St Johnsbury.  But for years, he was also a regular presence at our Essex County Court in Guildhall, often standing on the court house steps facing the Town Green, deep in conversation with clients or smoking a cigarette as he waited for a jury verdict or his turn in front of the judge.

I’ll never forget an encounter with Doug a few weeks after I’d passed the Vermont bar exam in the fall of 2011.   He stood in his usual spot on the courthouse steps as I walked by.  Outside the courtroom, Doug wasn’t one to talk much, but on this occasion, he waved and called out to me:  “I heard you passed that g__dd___m exam.”  When I confirmed I had, he asked “on the first try?”  and when I nodded happily, he said “smart girl,” stubbed out his cigarette and went inside.

Rest in peace, Doug.

More from Town Meeting: Saga of the Salt Shed

Salt Shed, Collapsed Feb 2015.
Salt Shed, Collapsed Feb 2015.

In our town, population 263, we don’t have much municipal infrastructure.  There’s a Town Office and that’s about it.

Oh, except for the salt shed.  Here in Guildhall, we don’t have our own road crew and we own no equipment or vehicles. Given our size, it makes more sense for the Town to outsource plowing and road maintenance to private contractors.

Back in 2007, however, the Town decided to appropriate money to build a structure for the storage and protection of the large amount of salt we use on our Class 2 and 3 roads.   The salt shed, as it’s called, has a long and somewhat stormy (and sometimes amusing) history.  Citizens voted to create a reserve fund for it in 2007, but the project languished until 2011,  when the Road Commissioner Barbara Peaslee Smith lobbied hard to have the salt shed built on the Peaslee Farm.  She and her husband Matt Smith were managing and overseeing the farm’s operations at the time.

That proposal was controversial, to say the least.  Many of us felt it was unwise to intermingle municipal and private property in this way.  Others were concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interest, given that the Road Commissioner was pushing the Town Selectboard to place a facility at the farm she managed, and therefore would stand to gain rental/lease money from the Town.   At a straw vote taken of the assembled opinion, a majority of those present were opposed to the idea of it being at the farm.  But the Selectboard voted to put it there anyway.

After Ms. Peaslee-Smith and her husband exited the farm and moved to Lancaster, the new manager and the owner Janice Peaslee came up with an idea that seemed to make sense.  In 2013, they proposed to sell the land where the salt shed sat to the Town, at a discounted rate.  That way, taxpayers wouldn’t have to expend money to move the damn thing, and it would be a town building sitting on town land.    But for reasons that are not altogether clear, the Selectboard decided to reject the Peaslee offer and dismantle and reassemble the shed on a small parcel of Town-owned land near Elvina Allen’s house.  This past winter was the first winter at the new location.

According to the budget presented in this year’s Town Report, the cost of moving the structure to the new site was over $31,000.

Flash forward to last month, when the Town Clerk Sam called to let me know that the roof of the salt shed had collapsed.  Even worse, I later learned, there would be no insurance money to cover repairs, because the Selectboard had specifically declined to insure the structure.

I didn’t get a good look at the salt shed until last week.  Until then, I had assumed it was just a minor dent.  As you can see, the damage is  more serious than that.

At last week’s Town Meeting, the problem of the salt shed was a major topic of discussion.  It looks like we’ll probably have to shell out $60,000 or more to put it back up again properly.   There’s no insurance money, and there’s no line item in the budget for it, so where the money is going to come from is anybody’s guess.

(By my calculations, this salt shed will have  cost us a pretty penny when all is said and done:  $25K from the initial reserve fund, $31K to move it, and if the estimate presented at Town Mtg was accurate, $60K to replace/repair it.   That means approximately $116,000.  Was it worth it for saving a bit of salt runoff?)


George Blakeslee Elected as Town Clerk and Treasurer

George Blakeslee, new Town Auditor, moments after his victory
George Blakeslee, new Town Auditor, moments after his victory

Our beloved George Blakeslee has been elected to the positions of Town Clerk and Town Treasurer here in Guildhall.  George is already well-known to townspeople, because he’s our Town Moderator, Lister, and Auditor. He also sits on the town’s website editorial board and acts as the computer/IT go-to person at the Town Offices.

A few days after his election last week, George came by my office in Guildhall to swear me in as his Assistant Treasurer and sign me again to the municipal and school district accounts.  (I was also the assistant treasurer for the previous Town Clerk and Treasurer).

We chatted and reminisced about our mutual history and experience in town politics, and I recalled meeting George for the first time when he ran for and was elected Town Auditor in 2010.  At the time, I was the Town and School District Treasurer–and as any Treasurer knows, detail-oriented and conscientious auditors like George are an incredible boon to our jobs.  I’ve had many occasions to work with Mr. Blakeslee since then and have always been impressed.  He’s competent, organized and multi-skilled.  We’re lucky to have him!

Gary Brown Joins Guildhall Selectboard

11020329_10206102569791370_433299411_n(This blog post is the first in a series covering issues and results of Town Meeting day here in Guildhall, Vermont)

There was only one contested race for town officials this year, for an open seat on our town’s Selectboard.   Voters chose between two names on the ballot,  Gary Brown and Tom Rogers, Sr.  Mr. Brown defeated Mr. Rogers handily and this was welcome news to me, since I had voted for and otherwise supported him.

Gary is one of my neighbors here in the village.  He doesn’t say a lot, but when he does, it counts for something. Most of us think of him as gentle and soft spoken,  but  beneath that demeanor is a person of character, conviction and when necessary, steely resolve.

The man  has an extremely strong sense of fair play and justice.  I’ll never forget a time, three years ago, when Gary stood up tall among the crowd at a meeting of the Guildhall School Board.  An unexpected  hush came over the room, because Gary wasn’t known for speaking up.  The fact that he stood to address the Board at all spoke  volumes in itself.  When he did speak, he demanded, respectfully, but passionately that School Board member Matt Smith resign.  A large crowd had come to the School Board meeting that night because we were troubled by Smith’s conduct on the board.    Many were outraged, but not everyone had the moxie to speak up.   Gary was one of them.
I was proud of him that night and I have come to know and appreciate him in countless other ways.  He quietly makes a difference in our town, mowing town property, doing snow removal, acting as the muncipal building and elementary school janitor,  maintaining our beloved historic cemeteries and serving on our town water commission, doing his part to make sure the system functions properly.  He’s a great person and I’m thrilled that we’ve elected him to the Selectboard.  Congratulations, Gary!