The new president of the Rutland County Agricultural Society said he has been offered as many condolences as congratulations.
Don Chioffi, a selectman in Rutland Town, was voted in Saturday by the group’s Board of Trustees. He is faced with a debt reported at $120,000 and a late start to organizing this year’s Vermont State Fair.
“It’s a pretty daunting task,” Chioffi said Saturday afternoon. “I’m sometimes overwhelmed by how much needs to be done. I’m not the kind to make that kind of a statement. Nothing in my life has overwhelmed me as much as the task before us.”
Chioffi is the third person to hold the position in two months. In February, the Board of Trustees voted to remove Richard Rivers, who was RCAS president as well as general manager of the fair, from both positions. Roger Pike was appointed interim president at the time.
At a special meeting March 15 to update the membership on the group’s status, Pike said he had no intention of serving past that day. Chioffi said he also has no intention of being more than an interim president.
“I’m not interested in any long term beyond the next annual election and I mean that,” he said. “It’s from now until the fair. My first obligation is to eradicate this debt and I’m going to do it.”
Chioffi said Robert Bearor, one of two vice presidents of the board of trustees, is serving as interim fair manager.
“We developed a schedule for payment of imminent bills to start getting our debts cleared up,” he said. “We do have contracts coming, receipts, deposits and so forth. We still have positive incoming cash flow.”
As hard as the task looks, Chioffi said he sees plenty of reasons to be confident.
“The commitment was definitely made not only to have a fair, but to have a darn good fair,” he said. “It’s our judgment based on the contacts we’ve had and the contracts people are seeking that there’s still a lot of confidence out there. We have a new board constituted. We’re trying to put trouble behind us and look to the future.”
The trouble, as described to the membership at the March 15 meeting, culminated in the board learning an IRS lien had been taken out on the fairgrounds and finding a stack of unopened mail in the fair office that Pike said would reach 30 inches high if stacked. More than a year’s worth of tax documents had not been filed, according to an accountant brought in by the board.
While Rivers has remained silent, his attorney and supporters in the organization have pointed out that dealing with the finances is, according to the group’s constitution, the responsibility of the treasurer rather than the president. The trustees have responded that regardless of what the constitution said, Rivers was the one running the organization.
“There are discussions on how we can correct situations that were allowed to get out of hand in the past,” Chioffi said. “We have an outdated constitution and bylaws. We will at some point have a committee working those documents over and bringing them up to the 21st century.”
At the top of the list is a policy and procedure manual laying out clear hiring practices, Chioffi said.
The organization’s policy on proxy voting, in which absent members may give another carte blanche to vote on their behalf, has been a source of frustration for many members. Chioffi said the trustees will look at changing that to a system more closely akin to an absentee ballot.
The trustees are also talking about reaching out to inactive members and asking them to relinquish their memberships in exchange for a lifetime emeritus membership card, freeing up space in the group for younger local people who will be more active as members.
Chioffi said he intends to lead a sizeable fundraising campaign and that he hopes to tap into the same sort of community spirit that fuels the Gift-of-Life Marathon blood drive. Toward that end, he said the organization needs to learn to be more transparent.
“I understand the community’s frustration,” he said. “It’s a very close organization. It’s a closed membership — that alone makes people suspicious. ... There are short-term goals and there are long-term goals. We can’t do everything at once. I want to assure everyone that the institutional changes we need to make are going to be made.”
In one immediate change, Chioffi said George Kuusela of Bellows Falls was added to the board of trustees.
“I don’t know George too well personally,” Chioffi said. “I know he’s done a lot of business with other fairs around. He came highly recommended. I personally think it’s a good thing to have our leadership spread out around Vermont with a wider range of experience with other fairs. That can only be beneficial.”
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