A review of public documents, public meeting recordings and emails obtained by the Rutland Herald shows Rutland City School Commissioner Hurley Cavacas, who was recently elected board chairman, has, on more than one occasion in recent months, publicly claimed to have contacted the offices of the attorney general and secretary of state and even asked them to conduct investigations despite those agencies showing no records of him doing so.
At other times, according to the review, he misrepresented his correspondences with those offices by either incorrectly stating the date on which he contacted them or suggesting they agreed with his positions despite producing no such evidence.
The incidents stretch back to last fall when Cavacas, at the Oct. 13 meeting of School Commissioners, successfully moved to postpone a discussion and vote to retire the district’s “Raider” name and arrowhead logo, claiming he was the target of political intimidation by a Rutland High School teacher and city resident.
During the meeting, he claimed he had contacted the attorney general’s office on the matter.
“I feel it is a threat. And when the attorney general’s office was contacted, they felt the same,” he said.
On Oct. 14, the Herald contacted the attorney general’s office to confirm Cavacas’ claim.
Chief of Staff Charity Clark replied in an email that Cavacas did not contact her office until the morning of Oct. 14.
“Late this morning, the Attorney General’s Office received a contact form from Hurley Cavacas regarding the matter you described in your initial inquiry,” Clark wrote. “The Attorney General’s Office let Mr. Cavacas know that concerns about threats or intimidation that may violate the law should be directed to local law enforcement or Vermont State Police. The Office also referred Mr. Cavacas to the Vermont School Boards Association for additional resources.”
Speaking Tuesday, Cavacas maintained that he called the office prior to the Oct. 13 meeting, stating that he spoke with “somebody who answers the phone up there.”
At the board’s next meeting on Oct. 20, then-chairwoman Alison Notte read a statement addressing Cavacas’ intimidation claim.
“Our legal counsel has indicated that there were no violations of any of our policies, no improper threats and no issues that should limit our ability to proceed as we might choose to address the issues before us,” she stated.
Cavacas agreed that his concerns had been resolved.
Later in the meeting, the board voted 6-4 to retire the Raider name and arrowhead logo.
At the next board meeting on Nov. 10, Cavacas addressed the board about a potential conflict of interest between him and his daughter Brittany Cavacas, who is also a commissioner.
“I have reached out the Secretary of State’s Office. Brittany and I are not in conflict on the board, as was alluded in an article in the Rutland Herald. There is a potential other conflict that they are exploring,” he said.
The Herald posed the question to Hurley Cavacas in a story published on Oct. 14, when it asked him if his motion to delay the mascot discussion and vote was motivated by the fact that his daughter was running for Senate in Rutland County. He claimed that was not the case.
Later in the same meeting, Cavacas revealed that the other conflict of interest was between Commissioner Kevin Kiefaber and his daughter Marisa Kiefaber, who was a member of the group advocating to change the mascot.
“There was a conflict of interest, according to the Secretary of State’s office, with Kevin. I should have a letter for our next meeting clarifying my conflict and questioning his,” said Cavacas.
Cavacas’ allegation against Kiefaber was reported in a story published in the Herald on Nov. 11.
Emails obtained by the Herald show that Commissioner Notte contacted the secretary of state’s Office on Nov. 12 to verify Cavacas’ claim.
Jenny Prosser, general counsel and director of municipal assistance, replied, stating, “I have not communicated with Hurley Cavacas Jr. on any matter, nor, to my knowledge, has anyone in our office.”
Prosser went on to note that “the Secretary of State does not have power to issue advisory opinions on ethics nor to investigate allegations of ethical misconduct against municipal officials.”
She elaborated: “Because there is no universal standard of what is deemed ethical under state law, and because we can’t give legal advice to the folks who contact our office, we generally don’t weigh in on whether a particular official’s behavior is permissible or appropriate. Instead, outside of the quasi-judicial context, we typically suggest reviewing local laws (a municipality’s charter and/or its COI ordinance) and policies (e.g. COI, ethics, personnel) for guidance. We also strongly recommend that boards consult with and rely on the advice of their own municipality’s counsel.”
Prosser did, however, state that she received an email from Brittany Cavacas “regarding state law on incompatible offices.”
According to those emails, Brittany Cavacas contacted the secretary of state’s office on Oct. 26 inquiring about the possibility of a conflict of interest between her and her father.
Prosser replied on Oct. 28, reiterating her response to Notte that the secretary of state “has no authority over municipalities or municipal officials, and no investigative or enforcement power under the laws governing school districts or other municipalities,” and cannot give legal advice or advisory opinions.
She went on to state that she was “not aware of anything in state statute that broadly operates to prevent a parent and adult child from serving on the same municipal board,” but noted that a given municipality might have stricter laws or policies on the books.
Cavacas admitted Tuesday that he did misspeak, clarifying that it was, in fact, his daughter who contacted the office.
“I stand corrected on that one,” he said.
And while he maintained his claim that he called the secretary of state regarding the Kiefaber conflict, he admitted he was mistaken when he claimed the office was “exploring” it, clarifying that he “requested them to look into it.”
On Tuesday, Prosser again confirmed she was not contacted by Hurley Cavacas.
“I am the point person at SoS for all municipal inquiries, so I do expect any call or email from him would have been forwarded to me, especially as I’d checked in with our elections and administration staff regarding Alison Notte’s inquiry back in November,” she wrote in an email.
Still, Cavacas maintains that he did contact both the attorney general and secretary of state’s offices, stating, “If they want to say nobody called whatever, but what I’m trying to tell you is, having dealt with the State of Vermont on multiple issues for clients, they don’t even record half the stuff. They don’t even write half the stuff down. We know that for a fact.”
He later blamed the lack of a record of his calls on the fact that state employees were working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Most recently at the board’s April 13 meeting, Cavacas suggested the Feb. 9 board vote to accept the “Ravens” as the new mascot and team name should be invalidated, arguing the vote did not follow Robert’s Rules of Order because the new mascot proposal was not an “action item” on the agenda.
According to the agenda for the Feb. 9 meeting, “RHS Mascot Proposal” was listed under Old and New Business.
The debate over the validity of the vote came after Commissioner Stephanie Stoodley made a motion to reinstate Raider name and arrowhead logo.
“We did not go through the process correctly, and that has been verified,” Cavacas said in reference to the Feb. 9 vote, adding that he would contact the board’s attorney the following morning.
When asked Tuesday to explain what he meant by “verified,” Cavacas did not provide an answer. Instead, he said the board would undergo a training on Robert’s Rules of Order led by the Vermont School Boards Association later this month.
Cavacas said a new ad hoc committee he will establish at next week’s board meeting will investigate the entire mascot process, including the legality of the Feb. 9 vote.
“It’s to review everything that has occurred in the past year, how it occurred and talking about the Raider name and logo,” he said, adding that he believes creating a committee is “the best way to handle this instead of bringing it up to immediate vote.”
“We need to put this issue to bed once and for all so then we can start moving forward for the good of this city,” he said.
Former commissioner Joanne Pencak, who served on the board until March when she chose not to seek re-election, questioned Cavacas’ position as board chairman, saying to “take what he says with a grain of salt.”
“Personally, I don’t think Hurley is a capable leader,” she said. “Regardless of what your feeling is on the mascot, he is too erratic, too emotional. He constantly tells falsehoods.”
Pencak attributed the hostility that has manifested on the board in recent months to a personal grudge Cavacas carries for Notte.
“He told me he was going to get revenge on Alison for running for chair against him last time,” she said.
Notte beat Cavacas to become board chairwoman last spring.
In a text message exchange between Pencak and Cavacas at the time, Cavacas stated he did not trust Notte.
“I don’t trust Alyson (sic). And neither do a few others,” he wrote, adding that the board had been “polarized by democrats (sic).”
He added that he intended to make things difficult for Notte, stating, “I’m polish (sic) I don’t get mad I get even.”
On Tuesday, Cavacas confirmed that he made those comments, stating, “That was an exchange between friends.”
Cavacas expressed his own frustration over the events of recent months, citing numerous personal attacks and saying people on both sides of the mascot issue have been calling him “every name in the book.”
“I have broad shoulders, but you know what? My broad shoulders are going to be looking at what we can do for these students,” he said.
Speaking Tuesday, Notte voiced her disapproval, stating that elected officials have a responsibility to be honest.
“I’m really disgusted that someone can make these claims in public view and never have to support or answer to the falsehoods, and then be able to just construct this narrative that is not based on fact at all,” Notte stated. “It’s damaging to our board, it’s damaging to our schools and it’s damaging to our town.”