Norwich Selectboard Postpones Meeting on Town Manager
Norwich — Discord among town officials bubbled to the surface on Wednesday after the Selectboard voted to hold, but then postponed, a closed-door discussion of Town Manager Neil Fulton’s performance.
There was no explanation at Wednesday night’s Selectboard meeting of what prompted the discussion about Fulton, Selectman Steve Flanders said. The motion to enter executive session was made by Selectwoman Linda Cook, who declined to comment on Thursday.
“Cook moved (2nd Moran) to enter into Executive Session ... to discuss disciplinary or dismissal action against a public officer (or) employee,” said the minutes published online on Thursday.
While the board initially voted 3-2 to enter a closed-door session, Cook eventually withdrew the motion and the board decided instead to consult a lawyer before proceeding further.
The situation remained unsettled on Thursday.
“If you find out what I’ve done wrong, tell me, so I can fix it,” Fulton said in a telephone interview.
Yet he also said that Cook’s motion stemmed from a past disagreement between the two officials over the town woodlot.
Selectman Dan Goulet, who voted with Cook and Selectman Keith Moran to enter executive session, had a different theory on Thursday.
Goulet said he attributed the conflict to an exchange at a meeting earlier this summer, where a resident had asked a question of a town department head only to be interrupted by the town manager, who said he would answer on his employee’s behalf. The resident later emailed the Selectboard to complain that he had been disrespected, Goulet said.
Goulet said he wasn’t sure what Cook had intended by calling the executive session at Wednesday’s meeting and had voted for it to see what would happen.
The incident at the woodlot, where the town keeps surplus logs that it provides to residents as a form of heating assistance, is an example of a case where officials have butted heads over the purview of the town manager.
In July, Fulton noticed that several cords of wood were missing and asked Police Chief Doug Robinson to investigate. Robinson soon discovered that Cook and a number of volunteers had taken it upon themselves to distribute the wood in May.
Fulton contends that Cook, who is the town public service officer, a position created by the state, should not have handled the town’s property without his permission.
“I recognize that the wood may have gone to individuals that need the wood, but request that you do not take any actions that involve the use of Town employees or resources, including wood from the woodlot, without specific written authorization from me,” said Fulton in a July letter to Cook.
Later, in an email to the Selectboard, Fulton alleged that Cook had threatened him during a conversation with Robinson.
“Linda stated that I (Neil) would be sorry I ever opened that can of worms, apparently referring to the unauthorized removal of wood from the woodlot,” he wrote.
Fulton also said in the email that Cook, despite a ban on contact between members of the Selectboard and department heads, had questioned Robinson on whether Fulton had coerced him into supporting a move of the police department to a former Agway site on Route 5.
The proposal to relocate the police and fire departments to the property known as ABC Dairy, located about a mile northeast of downtown, generated some heated discussion in town last month when Fulton and his department heads wrote a letter to the Capital Facilities Committee recommending the move, despite the Selectboard’s previous refusal to look into it.
Formerly the fire chief, Fulton became town manager three years ago when he replaced Peter Webster, whom the Selectboard had dismissed without a public explanation.
Fulton works without a contract, unlike past town managers, he said on Thursday. Fulton said he had felt safe without one because the previous officials had moved to Norwich for the position, while he was already a resident when he took the job.
After the 3-2 vote in favor of the nonpublic session on Wednesday, Fulton requested that the discussion be held in public. Failing that, if the session had to be private, he asked that any board decision be made public.
Selectboard Chairman Christopher Ashley, who along with Flanders voted against Cook’s motion, said at the meeting that he would take copious notes of the session and share them with the public.
After that, “there was some reconsideration,” Ashley said on Thursday, and Cook withdrew her motion.
On Thursday, Ashley said he hoped to reach an agreement on a way forward procedurally before hiring an attorney.
“It may be that in the light of day, not at the end of a long meeting, we may be able to work out some compromise,” Ashley said.
Moran, who also voted to go into executive session, could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
The Selectboard will address the issue at its next meeting on September 10.
Rob Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3242.