BY JULIA BAILEY-WELLS | COMMUNITY NEWS SERVICE | OCTOBER 1, 2020
Hinesburg selectboard member Jeff Tobrocke resigned Monday after sending a sharply-worded email to town administrator Renae Marshall, challenging her intentions during racial equity discussions in the town.
Tobrocke resigned his position via email about an hour before Monday’s selectboard meeting, the agenda for which included an item to discuss a censure of Tobrocke over his message to Marshall. While conceding to some concerns about the tone of his email to Marshall, Tobrocke said that discomfort is an essential element in challenging systems of oppression and supporting marginalized community members.
“I probably didn’t adequately communicate my feelings in a way that was productive. I’m really sorry that these people felt uncomfortable and challenged, but they need to feel that more frequently in order for us to really create a community that is responsive and accepting,” Tobrocke said, who is also a design and technology educator at nearby Champlain Valley Union High School.
In a town racial equity working group meeting to discuss community-police relations on September 17, a Black CVU student gave testimony on their experiences with the Hinesburg police. The student explained that their fear of being pulled over by the Hinesburg police had led them to take the bus to school from Williston every day rather than drive.
Following the meeting, Mike Loner, another selectboard member, shared a document with a list of organizations and resources about student resource officers in a group Dropbox folder. The organizations listed were suggestions for collaborators with the state’s Ethnic and Racial Disparities Committee, who are examining the role of police in schools, according to Loner.
Committee member Christina Deely responded to Loner’s Dropbox inclusions with concern, noting that Loner shared only pro-policing materials and failed to introduce any dissenting information critical of student resource officer programs.
“Research and history show that police in schools are ineffective in regards to safety improvements and also harmful to BIPOC students and families,” Deeley wrote, using an acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color. “That info is given no voice in your list of invited guests.”
Loner responded, noting that he intended the materials as a starting point for the committee to learn more about the issues surrounding SROs and explaining his inclusion of two specific items: the Strategies for Youth Program and the Mirror Project.
“The Strategies for Youth Program is more about training police on the juvenile brain and how to improve their approach to youthful offenders,” Loner wrote. “The same for The Mirror Project, which is again about improving police training and youth interactions.”
Marshall then emailed in response, thanking both Loner and Deeley for sharing their views and clarifying the objective of the committee’s shared Dropbox.
“The reason I created this portal (Dropbox folder) is to provide a place for each of us to share information and resources with the group,” Marshall wrote. “One entry in that portal doesn’t exclusively guide our work but it is important to understand all different perspectives and directions that other organizations are approaching this in order to gather ideas that may work for Hinesburg.”
Tobrocke responded over email directly to Marshall three days later, accusing her of ignorance to systemic racism and the current movement to prevent police violence against Black people across the country.
“You have no clue about the issues and your insensitivity is an indicator of your white privilege,” Tobrocke wrote. “Clearly you don’t GET the issues at hand and will fail in Colchetser [sic] as Town Manager with your racist viewpoint.”
Marshall shared her correspondence with Tobrocke with the selectboard, prompting board chair Phil Pouech to consult the town attorney and draft a censure resolution.
The censure called for no specific disciplinary action against Tobrocke, but condemned his behavior and stated the expectation that “destructive behavior end immediately thereby allowing this board to conduct our town’s business in an honest and constructive way.”
An hour before the meeting, Tobrocke sent an email of resignation to the selectboard, clarifying the intentions behind his message to Marshall. The inclusion and defense of the police training resources Loner shared represented a dismissal of the concerns students and community members had raised at the recent committee meeting, according to Tobrocke.
“The article that [Loner shared], on police SROs in schools and how there are programs for police to come into schools and help students understand their role in the community. That, for me, really undermined the risk that these kids took to share their lived experience,” Tobrocke said.
Tobrocke cited selectboard ambivalence to student testimony of fear and discomfort around local police as his central rationale for resigning.
“I will not standby while the lived experiences of our BIPOC community are ignored by our town leaders,” Tobroke wrote in his resignation. “I cannot continue to represent a town that attempts to diminish the voices of the marginalized and promotes increased policing over policy reform.”
Recent debate over policing in Hinesburg came in July when the board debated and ultimately accepted a federal grant to subsidize the salary of a new town police officer for three years. Tobrocke had been the sole dissenter during the July vote to hire a new officer, and he remains opposed to the hire, he wrote in his resignation letter.
The discussion came amidst national conversations about white supremacy, police brutality and the role and cost of law enforcement in communities across the country after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. A June report on local police spending in Vermont from UVM’s Legislative Policy Center found that Hinesburg ranks in the top forty highest local police budgets in the state, spending hundreds of thousands more dollars than some smaller neighboring towns.
Additionally, known white supremacist group Patriot Front placed stickers around town in early June, promping the selectboard to release an official statement in response.
“We, the Selectboard, as the governing body of the Town of Hinesburg, Vermont, denounce all messages of hate and intolerance. We stand with black and brown people in our community and across our country fighting for racial justice. We hear you. We see you. Black lives matter,” the statement read.
The board also committed to establishing a long term action plan to confront discrimination in Hinesburg.
At Monday’s meeting, during board comment on the censure, board members expressed their dismay at the tone of Tobrocke’s email to Marshall.
“I was very surprised when I saw that email directed at our town administrator, for someone who’s doing this work, and then to come at an individual—and I will say, a woman, and a leader of our town—with abuse and threatening language, to even threaten her next position because he’s a tax owner in a town she’ll be working in, kind of beyond words,” Loner said.
Marshall, too, expressed surprise at Tobrocke’s email to her.
“I was rather taken aback by the response. I feel like as selectboard members, the public has put the trust in you to represent the town and I think it’s very important how you conduct yourself at meeting and through the community,” Marshall said.
All four board members in attendance voted unanimously in favor of the censure. Following the censure vote, the board members in attendance voted unanimously to accept Tobrocke’s resignation.
The board plans to begin the selection process for a new member next week. As the date is too near the November election to add a selectboard vote to the ballot and a special election might be a logistical challenge for the town given the COVID-19 pandemic, the board will likely appoint someone to hold the position until an election next March, according to Pouech.
“We’ll take a look at the rules and we’ll take action at our next meeting or at least start the process,” Pouech said.
Going forward, Tobrocke intends to work on racial justice issues in Hinesburg independent of his former role on the selectboard, remaining in the racial and social equity working group and focusing on collaborating with CVU students in the newly formed Social Justice Alliance.
“I plan to work in the school with the students because I think that there is going to be a greater impact on society if we could really get our youth engaged and begin to push policy from that side and to actually do the work where I can have a greater impact.” Tobrocke said. “I think I’m going to have a greater impact here, working with 14 to 18 year olds at making change, systemic change at an early age.”
The Community News Service is a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.