Home News and Features Councilor Morton: ‘It’s been a huge gift’

Councilor Morton: ‘It’s been a huge gift’

Montpelier City Councilor Jennifer Morton recently sat down with The Bridge at Capitol Grounds to talk about her year and a half on the city council and why she decided not to run again. Photo by Tom McKone.
Although Montpelier City Councilor Jennifer Morton, who has represented District 3 for a year and a half, decided not to run for re-election, she is grateful for the experience of serving on the council, which she has found to be challenging, time-consuming, rewarding, and a mix of “good and bad.” She emphasizes the positive, but it is clear that sometimes the “bad” has been pretty bad.

“It’s been a huge gift,” she said when she sat down with me at Capitol Grounds on a recent Sunday afternoon. 

“It has been eye-opening and an honor, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she said. “I’m a better person because of it. I’ve learned a lot about humanity and about how city government works. There’s way more good than bad.”

Despite the good, Morton’s decision not to seek re-election came down to two issues: how time-consuming it is to be on the council, and the ongoing, angry, and negative tone that some people direct toward the council and city employees.

When Councilor Dan Richardson resigned in the summer of 2021, the council appointed Morton to fill the position until the next Town Meeting Day, in March 2022. Neighbors urged Morton to run, so she did, and voters elected her to serve the final year of that term, which ends this Town Meeting Day, March 7.

Morton said that in addition to her Indigenous heritage, she brought the perspective of a renter to the council, which is otherwise dominated by homeowners. She said she appreciated “getting to know people in town that I would have never spent time with — like the chief of police,” and that presentations by city staff were informative and helpful. She said Mayor Anne Watson and her fellow councilors were great; they made her feel welcomed, answered her questions, and helped her to learn about the many things the council does and how the city operates.

While she served on the council to push for change — faster repairs on the roads, for example — she quickly discovered that things are more complicated than they appear and take longer than one might expect. Besides financial constraints, there are other limitations, including how much time city staff members have: They can’t do everything.

By stepping out of her comfort zone to serve on the council, Morton said she hoped to set a good example for her two children, who attend Union Elementary School and Main Street Middle School. After growing up in Los Angeles and later living in Boston, Morton moved to Vermont eight years ago because this is her husband’s home state. Her Ojibwe heritage is important to her and came up several times during our interview. While her people call themselves Anishinaabe, English speakers often use the word Ojibwe, she explained.

Morton said the council’s twice-monthly meetings typically run four to six hours; the more frequent committee meetings run one to two hours, and councilors serve on multiple committees. Then there’s the stream of emails from the city manager, city staff members, and constituents that never stops. For a working mom with two kids, a husband, and a commitment to an Ojibwe ceremonial circle “that prays for the world and humanity,” it added up to too much time.

The second reason for leaving the council, however, may have been the breaking point.

“I knew I was going to be in the public eye, which is uncomfortable for me, culturally,” she said. “I didn’t realize how hard it would be. I can’t read Front Porch Forum anymore because there’s so much anger and frustration and miscommunication. It’s like a giant game of telephone. I wish that people would actually come to the meetings or watch them (on Zoom).”

“The folks who are angry are loud, and the loud is too much for me,” she said. “I can only let so much negativity into my world.”

Morton was very clear that everyone has the right to share their perspectives and to disagree with the council, city staff, or others. She encourages citizens to do this. How people deliver their opinions is the issue. Verbal assaults, for example, are unacceptable.

“I can handle that. I’m a very strong woman, but also I’m choosing to not absorb that anymore.”

After our interview, I emailed Morton to follow up on a comment she’d made about “folks who have not been very kind with their words and make me uncomfortable,” and especially, “There have been people who made me feel physically unsafe because of their behavior.” 

“It was a couple times in council due to a person’s level of intensity, their tone, choice of words, and determination to derail everything and anyone,” she wrote. “It felt very threatening to me because over time, the level of intensity and vitriol grew, and that feels unsafe to me. There is never a reason to make people feel threatened or unsafe in the city council. You can disagree and also be respectful. You can dislike a person and their ideas, but again there can be respect for those differences. This is where I hope folks will think before they say things, make sure they have accurate information and not just town gossip, because maybe the intention wasn’t to cause harm, but harm was caused nevertheless.”

Despite all this, Morton encourages those who have the time and are “okay with taking criticism” to run for the council. She thinks COVID fatigue has made things worse and led people to show less “grace for each other.” She believes the tone will get better.

“I don’t have any ill feelings about anyone or anything — at all,” she said. “I really am grateful for the experiences.”