Senate candidate fights for his right to campaign on public property
Editor’s note: St. Johnsbury Academy is a private, independent boarding and day school accepting high school students from St. Johnsbury, other nearby communities, and students from across the U.S. and all over the world. It opened in 1842. Notable alumni include several governors, Congressmen, a U.S. Senator, and President Calvin Coolidge, who attended for a year after failing his Amherst College entrance exam.
As the “Hilltoppers” athletic team name suggests, St. J Academy occupies a lofty ridgeline of the Caledonia County town of St. Johnsbury. Of equal high altitude and a short distance north on Main Street are two beautiful buildings, Atheneaum Library and the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium. Large, beautiful, 19th century churches intersperse the real estate along Main Street. All were funded (through direct philanthropy or indirectly via employees) in large part with money from the Fairbanks family and its main enterprise, the precision manufacturing concern that to this day remains the town’s largest employer.
This first-person account by GOP Senate candidate J.T. Dodge of Newbury – who is not a ‘local boy’ – describes what happens when a single person stands up alone for what he believes are his civil rights against the wishes of local school, town, and police authorities.
By J.T. Dodge
A week prior to the election, I found myself out sign waving alone in Saint Johnsbury. I made my way to the triangle of land in front of the Saint Johnsbury Academy (SJA). I was getting an amazing response. I mean it.
This spot appeared to be better than the other spots. I was seeing all sorts of smiling and waving, beeping, and silly faces. It was fun, I admit it. About twenty to twenty-five minutes into my sign-wave campaigning, I was unexpectedly approached by a woman who identified herself as a Dean. (Later, I attempted to look up her name, but I wasn’t able to find her face in the sea of SJA Deans.)
She said I was not allowed on the triangle as the school (SJA) did not want there to be an assumption, by the public, of affiliation (many nonprofits need to remain explicitly out of politics in most cases). I responded by letting her know that this piece of land is listed in the tax records as a “right of way” and that she didn’t have the authority to force me to leave.
She then restated that I needed to leave. I informed her that we were in a difficult situation because I was not going to leave. I then pointed at some police officers sitting in an SUV across the road. I told her she should go put this in the hands of the police because we wouldn’t be able to resolve this with her authority.
She walked to the police and explained, then she walked back over to the school and went inside.
A moment later, two uniformed police officers exited a city police SUV and walked over to me from where they were parked on the western side in a parking lot there (20 Theodore Roosevelt Highway). I didn’t get the officers’ names, but the one who did the talking asked me what I was up to.
I told him that I am campaigning and that this sign wave has been the most positive reaction that I have experienced. It’s valuable, I told him, when there is a many-year incumbent sitting in the Senate seat and most folks have no idea who I am as the challenger. I added that I knew my rights, and this is a right of way. I told them that they do not have the right to remove me, as it appears that they do not own the land that I am standing on, per the public tax records.
The officer posed the question, “If there was someone on my land, what would I do?” I explained that my land is legally posted, so I would ask the visitor to leave based on the legality of my “No Trespassing” signs clearly posted. I further asked respectfully but with a tone of moderate indignance, “Where are the signs saying no candidates for public office?” They were reasonable and explained that they would make a phone call to verify their next move.
I assumed the call would have been to their chief. I cut it short and said, “Hey, maybe I can compromise right now; what if I stand on the painted white traffic triangle on the tip of the green out on the street?” They said it would be fine as long as I wasn’t disturbing traffic. So that’s what I did, and it satisfied the situation without further escalation.
I stood on the painted white traffic triangle at the tip of the green, facing into town. I began waving and smiling, but immediately there was a different vibe. Folks weren’t very pleased to see me standing in the road. Rightly so! I didn’t feel safe.
At that point, it was about 7 a.m., and I decided to get going to work. I told myself I would come back around 4 pm to do another campaign ‘sign wave’, to smile and wave at local folks going to pick up their children from school and coming home from work.
I arrived back around 4 p.m. and immediately stood on the road in the painted triangle in the same location. And again, it felt unsafe, so I backed up and stepped up to the point of the green.
Everything was going well until John Lenzini (second Head Master at SJA) and his security guard came out to me, demanding that I leave the premises because, in his words, the police had already told me to stay off the triangle.
I reminded him that he didn’t know what conversation took place between the police and me. I asked for Mr. Lenzini’s credentials, as he was making a legal demand of me. He stated his name, but to be honest, I had never heard of him. I asked for proof that he had the right to “expel me” (the word later used on the front page of the local daily newspaper, the Caledonian-Record), describing their legal right to remove me from the spot, by utilizing law enforcement.
They both laughed a belly laugh, and Lenzini said, “That’s not how this works.” The security guard at Lenzini was a little bit aggressive. He puffed up his chest and acted like he was waiting for me to do something disruptive. I didn’t. I should add that It was stated in one of the Caledonian-Record interviews, that there was a note of potential danger in my actions, which he emphasized by ending his sentence with the phrase, “in times like this.” That comment made it sound like people should be afraid of me, the relatively unknown candidate waving and smiling at traffic.
Lenzini’s security guard got aggressive by entering my personal space. Not wanting him to be physical with me, I stepped off the green triangle onto the pavement, where a white-painted triangle was. I’d been feeling pretty good, with a calm, steady heartbeat, but when the guard approached, my heart began to beat quite quickly, and I knew it was time to walk away, lest I say something I’d later regret. I turned away from him and crossed to the sidewalk in front of SJA.
The security guard started making fun of me because of my campaign, then moved to the sidewalk and blocked my way. I reminded him that SJA doesn’t own the sidewalk. Lenzini remained on the phone in the right-of-way triangle for this. I’ll note he was on town land while he paced back and forth with his phone to his ear. I believe he was calling the police.
After a moment, the guard gave me the business. I exited his confrontation and turned to smile and wave at a few cars with my campaign sign. I told him I didn’t feel comfortable with him around me anymore and he should let me be. I waved at cars for another few minutes from the point of the triangle facing downtown Saint Johnsbury, on Upper Main Street, then left to go home as it was getting dark at this point.
When I got home, one of the city officers, I believe Officer Garrish, called me. The call went like this: He introduced himself as an officer in Saint Johnsbury, and he told me that SJA had registered a “no-trespass order” on me and that if I step on ANY SJA land from here forward, I will be charged with “Unlawful Trespass.”
I asked him if he had checked who owned the land before doing this, but he just ignored me and said that if I stepped on any Saint Johnsbury Academy property in the future, I would be charged. And at this point, I repeated my question twice more while he also repeated his statement. I asked him one last time, and he said “No.” He hadn’t verified the ownership of the property, and he abruptly hung up on me when I told him that I would be “back tomorrow morning, on the point of that right of way.”
I decided not to return in the morning. Instead, I chose to call Chief Tim Page to find out if he had verified the ownership of the “Triangle” before he used the color of law to remove me. He took a moment to tell me that he disagreed with what I was doing. It turned into a stern, somewhat disrespectful lecture.
I asked again if he had verified the ownership of the land. He said, “Yes, I did.” I asked him how. He said that he called the town manager, Chad Whitehead, and SJA owned it. My next thought was, “Why would he ask the town manager about land ownership?” Why didn’t he verify by going to the person hired for questions like this, the town clerk?
My next endeavor was to go down to the Saint Johnsbury Town office at 51 Depot Square and attempt to look up the records and validate my belief that I was able to legally be on “the triangle.”
The following day, I arrived at the Town Office at 51 Depot Square with my spare phone as an audio recorder. I didn’t want to miss a thing, as I know that if my heart rate elevates, I might miss something, and if I need to quote someone, I want to be correct. As a candidate and citizen who has irritated a powerful school, or a municipal government, I just wanted to tread carefully and deliberately. I see my vulnerability in this circle, but I and the people of Saint Johnsbury, Vermont, have individual rights that should be upheld by the city police and not violated.
I went inside to the desk and asked for the town assessor’s office. The assessor wasn’t there but Town Manager Whitehead was helpfully standing out in front of what I believe to be his office.
I told him who I was, and he acknowledged that he knew who I was. I went on to say that I wanted to find out who actually owned the property because I wanted to clear my name. And it worried me because SJA owns so much of the city of Saint Johnsbury that I may one day inadvertently step on their vast number of properties in the city. What’s more, it didn’t seem right or fair to me. And how many times over the years have candidates been denied access to property that the academy simply does not own (the right of way’s peripheral border curb)?
I told him they registered my name with the police office: “There has been something, I’m just going off of memory, it was years ago when they put the sign in the middle of that in there, I remember them having a claim that they somehow owned that, and I don’t know if they have anything that backs that up.” It’s never been a thing that… We haven’t had any interest in exploring because we don’t need to. The utilities go all the way around that triangle. So when they (SJA) say that they own it, I’m like O.K.” (pause) ”…if we really had a reason to own it, if we needed to own it…” (My transcription is interrupted there, but this is nearly verbatim.) I thanked him for his time, and he gave me directions downstairs to the city clerk’s office.
I took the elevator back down to the first floor to visit Dianne (assistant to the assessor) and hopefully review records. I introduced myself and asked for some help locating a land ownership record. I explained that I was at one time familiar with the system that is used to look through the cards back in the record vault, but it has been a long time, and I felt as if I would need some guidance to get started on my research.
It was first suggested that I look online for the records. I explained that I had already done this and there are no ownership details on the online record, just “right of way.” (This was what I initially looked at to verify if I was able to legally stand on the triangle.). She said, “Like I told the Caledonian-Record and the others, you’re probably going to have to go back a hundred years, and you’re probably not going to find anything.”
I told her, “I’d like to look.” She continued, “like all the other little pieces of land, it could be owned by the town, it could be owned by the state because route 5a goes through there and Route 2 goes there”. I reminded her that this was important to me because the police have my name registered and I needed to get that cleared up. She said I could look at the town website, and I again reminded her that I looked at that and it doesn’t show any ownership. “So who do I speak to now?” I said. At this point, she said, “Then find the last deed and go from book and page from there.” I persisted, “OK, where would I find the deed?” Here she answered, “There isn’t going to be one, that’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
“Oh, I don’t understand that because I’m not a real estate person,” I stated.
“It’s one of those pieces of land that probably just ended up there, and finding out who the actual owner is is like finding a needle in a haystack.”
“I know and I’m one of those people,” I said.
She continued, “And I can’t even give you a starting point on where to begin to look for it, because I wouldn’t know where to look, you know, either the town of Saint J., Saint J. Academy, or the State of Vermont, and pulling up any of those is going to produce a thousand plus records.”
“So where do I find those records?” I asked firmly.
She paused and said in an annoyed tone, “Feel free to come into the vault.” I followed her back there, and along the way, she was fairly forceful that she did not have time to sit and help me and point me to the “S” cards only. She mentioned that it might be easier for me to go to the VTRANS and ask them. She suggested it could save me some time. After seeing all the cards, I told her I would do that, but to be patient with me, in case they don’t give me a clear answer. I reminded her that I’d be back to review the cards.
I went down the road a few miles and spoke with the VTRANS folks.
I told them where it was and how hard it was for me to find the land record. I asked them if they knew anything about the ownership. They said that this was not their property and that this would be 100% the town clerk’s office.
Instead of going back to the clerk’s office, I reached out to a local friend who was a former teacher for 30 years at SJA. He then directed me to another man who is also a Saint Johnsbury resident, a former instructor at SJA for 30 years as well, and a long-time surveyor in the area. His name is Andy Dussault (pronounced “do-so”), and he owns “Dussault Surveyors.”
I explained the situation to him, and he said that he had been following along. Further, he believed there was more to this, and this is the type of work that he really enjoys.
Mr. Dussault was able to locate the records and show that if I was standing where I say I was, I was not on SJA property, but rather, town property.
He went on to explain that on the SJA side of the triangle, in the 1890s, the road was transitioned from a three-rod road to a four-rod road. A rod is 16.5 feet long. This means that the former fountain’s outer edge was partially in the way when it was present. Additionally, the record shows that I was clearly not on their land, and they had no right to call the police on me to enforce a trespass order.
They knew what land they owned, and they knew what they didn’t own, in my opinion. It’s important to note here that the police needed probable cause to remove me and threaten me with a charge. Clearly, “probable cause” was required for the police to remove a campaigning candidate and threaten them with trespass if they returned. To keep the candidate’s name on file is wrong if they hadn’t verified that SJA owned the land I was standing on.
Mr. Dussault, who was, in my opinion, hurt when the Headmaster decided not to meet with him on my behalf, to sort this out in a proper and upfront way. She turned down the request to meet after the survey maps landed on the front page of the Caledonian-Record, in response to a very weak old quit claim deed from 1895 that has the name Fairbanks on it. It is not a sufficient record to prove that the land is theirs and that I was on their property. The reality is that they own a much smaller triangle of land on the interior of the right of way.
The Headmaster refused to meet with Mr. Dussault to clear up my legal issue.
This leads me to consider seeking further remedy, starting with a conversation about the best practice of having “probable cause” when the source that Chief Page used to verify ownership of the land says he doesn’t know who owns it. I have the documents to prove my point here and clear my name and clear up the ownership assumption that has existed in front of SJA for many years.
I called Chief Page on the day of the general election and told him that I would be defying his trespass order on election day. I told him he should know because he doesn’t have land ownership validation, and removing me or pressing charges could leave him in a bad legal spot.
He yelled at me for a moment or two, then stated that I could go ahead and do it. He told me he didn’t like what I was doing. I responded by telling him that I was attempting something positive with this campaign and that I wasn’t the one who called him to enforce the law on me. He angrily hung up before he heard what I had to say about my campaign.
I held to my word and stood out on the triangle for about 45 minutes and streamed it to the internet. This was so that if I was interrupted or removed by SJA staff or SJ police, I could prove my behavior was within the law.
The author is a climate activist, Republican/Libertarian, and self-employed resident of Newbury. He lost the Caledonia County state senate election last Tuesday to incumbent Democrat Jane Kitchel.
Categories: Local government