Jim Kenyon: In Pomfret, the Emphasis Is on ‘Fret’
Town auditors have accused other town officials of locking them out of their office. They also have claimed that the password to the town computer they use was changed without their knowledge. And in a non-auditor disgruntlement, a resident showed up at a Selectboard meeting in September and threatened to whack a selectman with a flower basket.
Talk about palace intrigue.
And for once, it’s not taking place in Norwich.
Pomfret, population 900, may appear to be just another sleepy, gentrified Upper Valley community where the general store closes at 6 p.m. But for the last year or so, Pomfret has made the animosity in Washington seem like a tea party.
After the flower basket incident on Sept. 18, town Constable Jonathan Fredholm began making regular appearances at the biweekly Selectboard meetings. So far, Fredholm’s presence has had the desired effect. The flower basket is again serving its intended purpose — a centerpiece for the Selectboard’s conference table — rather than being wielded as a potential weapon.
Aside from that, I wish that I could shed more light on Pomfret’s unrest. But I don’t know if even Woodward and Bernstein could get to the bottom of it. Residents remain tight-lipped, particularly when nosy reporters who don’t live in town are asking the questions.
Treasurer Hazel Harrington, who has worked for the town for 40 years, said she’s “never seen anything like it.” In my best Bob Woodward imitation, I asked her for specifics. “I’d rather not say,” Harrington replied in her usual polite manner.
Selectman Mark Warner, who was not the target of the flower-basket-almost-in-your-face incident, told me that it’s “a lot of little things” and boils down to “personality clashes.”
At last Wednesday night’s Selectboard meeting, former Selectboard member Doug Tuthill brought up the lockout, which from what I can gather happened nearly a year ago. But as far as some Pomfret residents are concerned, it might as well have been yesterday. “This isn’t going away,” Tuthill informed the board, even though the auditors are back in their office.
Some Vermont communities have gone away from electing townspeople to serve as auditors. Instead they hire outside accountants to look over town books. Pomfret, however, has maintained the tradition. According to the Vermont League of Cities and Towns handbook, town auditors “play a vital role in preserving the democratic nature of Vermont’s local government by ensuring that local officials are accountable for the expenditures of taxpayers’ money.”
Carlene Hewitt was an auditor in Pomfret for five years before handing in her resignation in March. At a Selectboard meeting on Oct. 16, Hewitt brought up the lockout while chastising Selectboard members and other town officials for “childish behavior” and fueling personality conflicts. She also asserted that Selectman Neil Lamson had yelled at her and the other auditors — Betsy Rhodes and Laura Kent — when they inquired about the lockout. “Neil, you have never apologized for your explosive behavior,” said Hewitt, according to minutes of the Oct. 16 meeting. There’s no record of his response.
Lamson, a retired U.S. Forest Service employee, declined to talk with me.
Some of the friction between the Selectboard and the auditors seems to have been over the installation of new bookkeeping software for the town’s computer system. Apparently, the change didn’t happen as quickly as auditors had expected.
Around the same time last fall, Rhodes informed the Selectboard that she needed to give up her auditing duties to undergo major foot surgery that would keep her bedridden for an extended period. In early December, the three auditors asked the Selectboard to appoint former auditor Andy Mann to replace Rhodes.
The Selectboard refused to fill the vacancy. No reason is given in the board’s meeting minutes.
Meanwhile, the Selectboard members have had other fires to put out. Residents have argued that they broke the state’s public meeting law last December when they met to talk about the 2013 budget. Lamson countered that it was only a “work session to prepare a draft of the budget and not a public meeting.”
Then there was the flower basket.
On Sept. 18, a resident showed up at the town offices before a meeting to confront the Selectboard about a private dump, which included old tires, on his family’s property. At least one selectman was mistaken, the resident said: He wasn’t adding to the junk heap. In fact, he was cleaning it up.
Cooler heads eventually prevailed, and the man put down the flower basket.
As crazy as all this sounds, I think there’s reason for optimism.
At a special Town Meeting last Tuesday, voters elected former state legislator Michael Reese, a lawyer, to replace Selectman Kevin Lessard, who resigned for personal reasons in September. On Wednesday, his two colleagues asked him to take over as chairman. Along with a legal mind, Reese brings a good set of ears, which will be needed if the board is serious about rebuilding its relationship with the community.
“Admittedly, there’s a lack of trust,” Reese told me, adding that he thinks relations between the Selectboard and the auditors, two of whom are new to the job this year, have improved. “I’d like to find out what issues we need to bring back up, and get closure. I’d like to bring back some civility, too.”
If he can do that, Reese deserves his own basket of flowers.
Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.