Editorial: Rewriting Rieseberg’s Contract

The Hartford Selectboard appears poised to replace long-time Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg’s three-year contract with — something else. What exactly the new agreement will contain is shrouded in mystery at this point, as the Selectboard has conducted the process entirely behind closed doors. But some reasonable inferences can be drawn.

As staff writer Jordan Cuddemi reported last week, Rieseberg’s current contract renews automatically every three years unless the board decrees otherwise. If the board were going to stick with the current arrangement, then it would need to do nothing by the deadline for automatic renewal, which is Sept. 23. Instead, the board appears ready to vote on the manager’s agreement at its next meeting. So some terms seem likely to change.

And since the process has stretched out over the summer and the course of at least five executive sessions — despite Selectboard Co-Chairman Alex DeFelice’s confidence in May that the agreement was likely to be wrapped up quickly — it also seems likely that the seven board members were not all of the same mind, at least initially, and perhaps that Rieseberg, who has been on the job for 18 years in Hartford, did not embrace without reservation whatever the board proposed.

The negotiations have, of course, been conducted against the backdrop of an open letter signed by more than 80 Hartford residents back in May calling on the board to avert the automatic renewal of Rieseberg’s contract and to begin the process of transitioning to new leadership.

Whether the board adopted that goal is unclear, but Selectman Simon Dennis assured Cuddemi that “the process has unfolded in a very thoughtful and orderly way, and it is a process that has been done well by all parties.” A good process doesn’t always guarantee a good outcome, of course, but it does increase the odds. So we hope Dennis is right.

In any case, there are a couple of things we hope the board will consider for the future, not just during the remainder of Rieseberg’s tenure. One is to do away with automatic renewal of the manager’s contract. This is bad policy because it erodes accountability. The board ought to vote in public every time a town manager’s contract is up for renewal and explain in detail all of its provisions — especially if there is a change in them.

The second is to make solicitation of public comment about the manager’s performance a formal part of the renewal process. It is important for the public to have a way to be heard beyond buttonholing individual members of the board on the street corner.

The third is for the board to make some arrangement to regularly assess the manager’s performance publicly. Although this is not common in Vermont and New Hampshire, it is not unheard of elsewhere and provides the public with valuable insight not only into how the manager is doing but also individual board members’ priorities. There is no more important decision entrusted to a selectboard than who serves as town manager, because that shapes almost every other facet of town government. The public deserves an honest periodic assessment of how its community’s top appointed official is performing, not only because that is important on its own merits, but also because it’s a way to judge how their top elected officials are performing.