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Jim Kenyon: Division in Dorchester

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Sunday, October 01, 2017

I really don’t know what to make of Dorchester. Folks in the town of 320 or so residents seem friendly enough during casual conversations. But when they show up at Selectboard meetings or talk about their neighbors on Facebook, they’re quick to take off the gloves.

It’s hard to pinpoint what drives the incivility, other than small-town politics at its worst. The firing of two road agents in four years, however, and the Selectboard’s current inability to fill arguably the most important job in town have no doubt contributed to the hostilities.

In the last six months, three Selectboard members have resigned, which is a problem when there are only three members to begin with.

“It’s become so ugly that people don’t want anything to do with serving the town,” said Steve Bjerklie, who resigned from the board this spring on his doctor’s orders two years after his election. “The town is really in a dire spot.”

So dire that state officials have stepped in. On Wednesday, state Sen. Bob Giuda, who represents Dorchester in Concord, presided over a town forum in hopes that residents could begin to set aside their differences. But just in case they couldn’t, a Grafton County sheriff’s deputy was stationed at the Town Hall’s front entrance.

“All is not well in Mudville,” said Giuda at the outset of the meeting that attracted 60 residents. “Some colleagues said I was on a suicide mission to come here.”

After Bjerklie resigned, the two remaining board members — Larry Walker Jr., and Mike Woodard — appointed Margaret Currier-Lemay as his replacement.

But the board didn’t remain at full strength for long. This summer, Woodard resigned for health reasons. His seat was expected to be filled in August, but Currier-Lemay and Walker couldn’t agree on a replacement.

Last month, Walker announced his resignation. The squabbling and insults had become too much to take, he said.

With only Currier-Lemay left, the town’s governing body was paralyzed. It takes at least two members to set a tax rate, craft a budget or conduct other town business.

Along with Giuda, New Hampshire Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan was on hand at Wednesday’s special meeting to go over the town’s options.

Under state law, Currier-Lemay was free to appoint a second board member, Scanlan said. A smattering of former Selectboard members in the audience agreed to entertain a return to public service.

Some people want “new blood” running the town. But a resident pointed out that three recent members were “new blood, and that didn’t work.”

So why is Dorchester so contentious that it’s even stopped holding an annual Old Home Day celebration?

For whatever reason, the town is divided into factions, or teams, as one resident described it Wednesday.

I’m beginning to think that Dorchester’s strength might also be its weakness.

With more than 29,000 acres of mostly forestland, it’s one of the state’s least-populated towns. Dorchester’s rural character and rugged terrain creates much of its appeal.

But there’s a downside.

Dorchester doesn’t have a school, post office, library or even a transfer station. All serve as gathering places where residents regularly exchange pleasantries, gossip or opinions. These are face-to-face encounters that encourage civility and cultivate community.

Dorchester is also without a volunteer fire department, which can build camaraderie while residents work side by side. “We have no institution that kind of brings people together in a neutral atmosphere,” Bjerklie said.

When the town’s small general store with a lunch counter on Route 118 closed years ago, Dorchester lost more than just a place to buy gas and milk.

“If you had something that you wanted people to know about, you just mentioned it at the store,” said John Franz, a former Selectboard member who has lived in town for nearly 40 years. “News got around faster than by calling 911.”

With more people communicating — if you can call it that — through social media, face-to-face conversations are becoming more rare.

“Social media hasn’t done any favors for small towns,” Bjerklie said. “It allows people to bring out their knives without any consequences.”

Along with Facebook, there’s something called Dorchester Notes, a monthly online newsletter found on the town’s website.

The newsletter, written by resident Betty Ann Trought, is a “personal summary of interesting events and information.”

“Personal” being the key word.

In the September edition, Trought wrote that she had attended the Aug. 26 board meeting and “though I knew things were bad, this meeting was far worse than my personal expectations.”

Walker had ended up chairing the board “by default,” she wrote, and he “doesn’t appear to have the knowledge and experience to handle an executive position.”

Trought added that she had nominated Sherman Hallock, a former board member who had lost his 2016 re-election bid to Walker, to fill a board vacancy. When I asked Trought about her editorializing on the town website, she said, “I don’t do that very often. I just thought people needed to know.”

On Wednesday night, Currier-Lemay picked Hallock to join the board, which led a Facebook user to post, “Let’s hope he sticks to his word, and moves forward, not backward.”

This week, Currier-Lemay and Hallock are expected to name a third member — providing anyone is willing to serve in the $2,500-a-year job. “We’ll get through this,” Currier-Lemay told me.

Let’s hope so. If a community as small as Dorchester can’t figure out how to handle disagreement without becoming dysfunctional that doesn’t bode well for the rest of us.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.