Reporter Debrief: Stamford Select Board Seeks To Sue Scott Over COVID Restrictions

Dec 31, 2020
Originally published on January 3, 2021 11:17 am

One southern Vermont town has voted to sue the state over pandemic public health restrictions.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott has received national praise for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by putting strict public health restrictions in place, limiting gatherings, and requiring travel quarantines. People have largely followed those orders, which has led to Vermont having some of the lowest coronavirus case rates in the country. But not everyone is happy with Scott's restrictions.

In Bennington County, near the Massachusetts border, the small town of Stamford has pushed back, and on Tuesday, the select board took their most drastic step yet voting to sue the state over the public health restrictions.

VPR’s Liam Elder-Connors spoke with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman, who has been covering the developments in Stamford. Their conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Liam Elder-Connors: Let's start off with what happened last night. The Stamford Select Board decided to file a lawsuit over the coronavirus mitigation measures. Why are they doing this?

Howard Weiss-Tisman: So, the select board says that Gov. Scott's emergency order is unconstitutional. They've been talking about this for a month or so. They started talking about it just before Thanksgiving, when the governor asked Vermonters not to get together in their own homes and not to gather with families.

So, the board met in executive session with Vermont attorney Deb Bucknam last night. This is what Select Board member Dan Potvin said about why he thinks it's important for the select board to move forward with this now:

“There’s unlimited numbers of things these tyrant governors can start enforcing. This way here, we can deal with it locally.”

So, has the town actually filed this lawsuit?

Well, the board made it sound like they really wanted to move ahead with this sooner than later. They understand that vaccines are on the way, that the health order could be over in four, five or six months. And so, the board seemed eager to get this rolling.

Is this the first time that town officials have openly defied the state's public health orders that are meant to slow the spread of a virus that’s sickened thousands and killed 134 Vermonters?

They've been pretty active for the past month, month and a half or so. When the Thanksgiving holiday came up, they kind of made a public statement that they thought it was OK for the people in Stamford to get together. Then they held a pretty high-profile, public gathering in front of the town school it was a Christmas tree lighting. Santa Claus was there without a mask.

More from VPR: Stamford Defies Gov.'s COVID Order To Light Town Christmas Tree

And then after that, they held a meeting and adopted a resolution that the select board said they would uphold the Constitution, and what this meant to say is that people did have a right to gather.

It's also important to note that the select board has been meeting in person; people have been there with and without masks, and not everyone has been socially distancing there. So, this has been going on for six weeks or so, and last night, it kind of came to a head.

Howard, is there anyone in the town or on the select board who's pushed back on any of these plans or these actions that are in defiance of all the public health rules that have been in place for months now?

Yeah, there has been pushback. It's also important to recognize that there's also support in Stamford. Stamford is a relatively conservative town. The town did go for Donald Trump in the past election. And the constitutional resolution that they adopted at the last meeting came after a group of residents gathered a petition and asked the board to do so.

Last night, there was a pretty strong showing of people opposed to the actions that the select board has been taking. Pat Sullivan was at the meeting, and this is what she said:

“I don't like the precedent of, somehow our select board, you know, saying to our governor that we don't support what that person is doing to the extent that we would like to take over. This doesn't make any sense to me at all. None. As a matter of fact, it horrifies me.”

How are state officials planning to address what elected officials in Stamford are doing as they're kind of blatantly ignoring these state rules that are intended to stop COVID-19 infections?

The state has had their eyes on what's going on down there. After the public Christmas tree lighting, the Vermont State Police called town officials. According to a state police spokesman, the conversations were respectful.

And then I spoke to Attorney General T.J. Donovan this morning. The attorney general says that the law is constitutional. He said that he would be sending a letter to Stamford today, and he also said that if the case did get to court, that he would defend the law.

I also had a conversation with Gov. Scott's spokesperson this morning, and the governor’s spokesperson said that the governor understands that it's hard, but this is a public health emergency, and he's asking everybody to give a little bit. These are tough times, and it's not easy for anybody.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors.

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