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Jim Kenyon: Thetford’s public works director needs to be directed out of public work

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 1/16/2021 9:36:56 PM
Modified: 1/16/2021 9:36:55 PM

I don’t like to see anyone lose their job. (At least anyone not named Donald Trump.) That said, Thetford’s public works director, Nathan Maxwell, needs to go.

But the Thetford Selectboard lacks the backbone to fire Maxwell, who posted a couple of jaw-dropping short videos on social media last year that reeked of racism and misogyny. In a 13-second clip about why he doesn’t wear a mask during the coronavirus pandemic, Maxwell also threw in two F-bombs for good measure.

To make matters worse, after the posts came to light in November, Maxwell denied on a town Facebook page that they were his handiwork.

Still, as Thetford residents learned at last Monday’s Zoom Selectboard meeting, Maxwell will keep his $62,000-a-year job of overseeing the town’s road projects, building maintenance and transfer station.

Board members argue the decision to keep Maxwell on the payroll wasn’t theirs to make. In Vermont, only the town manager, or in Thetford’s current case, interim town manager, wields that power.

That’s just a smokescreen.

As the “interim” in his title suggests, Tom Yennerell is very much a short-timer. He’s around only until the Selectboard wraps up its search for Thetford’s third town manager in 18 months.

I can’t believe that Yennerell — or anyone else wearing an interim tag — would defy his bosses’ orders, if he wanted to continue getting a paycheck.

Last Sunday, the five-member board met behind closed doors to talk about a “situation with an employee.” Afterward in a public session, Chairman Nick Clark and members Mary Bryant, Sharon Harkay and Li Shen voted to “direct the town manager to take disciplinary action” against Maxwell. (Board member Steve Tofel left before the vote.)

I suspect the board was worried that Maxwell might hit the town with a lawsuit for violating his First Amendment rights, if he was canned over the posts.

That’s no excuse. This is one of those times when elected officials need to make it clear that vile online behavior by a public employee in a leadership position won’t be tolerated.

If the board was looking for cover from criticism that Maxwell’s actions didn’t warrant his firing, it only has to look at a chronology of events that Thetford resident Alexis Jetter compiled. Jetter, a Pulitzer Prize finalist while she was an investigative reporter at New York Newsday who now teaches journalism at Dartmouth, sifted through a bunch of public records to piece together what happened.

Here’s some of what she found:

In June 2020, Maxwell posted his “I just don’t give a f---” video on TikTok, an app geared toward younger people with an estimated 850 million monthly active users. In the video, Maxwell mentions going into a store, where a woman berated him for not wearing a mask. It goes downhill from there.

Later, Maxwell posted a video about making a pizza. “My wife won’t eat it,” he said. “She says it’s too black. I think she’s racist.”

Maxwell might have avoided detection (he didn’t have a lot of TikTok followers) if he hadn’t posted a comment attacking a Texas social justice activist. After the November election, Jessica Luther Rummel asked Trump supporters: “Now that your man lost, y’all gonna fly around your Trump flags for the next 150 years like you did with the Confederacy, seeing as how they both lasted only four years?”

Maxwell was among those to take the bait. In his response, Maxwell referred to Rummel’s Hindu bindi, a red dot that she wears on her forehead as a symbol of her faith. “I don’t know, but thanks for the target on the forehead,” he wrote. “That makes things easier.”

Soon after, Rummel downloaded two of Maxwell’s videos and shared his comments on social media. That led to a backlash of callers and commenters across the country — and the Upper Valley — demanding Thetford officials take action.

On Nov. 23, Maxwell posted on a town Facebook page that he would “never make this type of statement.”

At Monday’s board meeting, Yennerell told residents that he couldn’t discuss a personnel matter, but that Maxwell would face “financial repercussions.”

Maxwell, who is in his early 40s, started working for town in 2016 as a part-time employee in the recreation department. Last April, he was promoted to recreation director. Former Town Manager Guy Scaife put Maxwell in charge of public works in October.

By heading up both the public works and recreation departments, Maxwell was in line to earn $67,860 annually. He’s no longer involved with the recreation department, though. (The town is now advertising for a part-time recreation coordinator.)

Attempts to reach Maxwell last week by phone and email were unsuccessful. I also stopped by the town office building, where I talked with Yennerell outdoors.

Yennerell told me that Maxwell was not in his office; he was serving a two-week unpaid suspension. (I guess that’s what Yennerell meant about financial repercussions.) Maxwell will also undergo sensitivity training, Yennerell said.

While Maxwell’s remarks on Rummel may not rise to the level of a crime, it’s still a “horrible message to send the children of this town,” said Wanda Vaughan, an elementary school teacher, who was among a half-dozen residents to speak at Monday’s board meeting.

Thetford officials shouldn’t assume Maxwell’s conduct will soon be forgotten. I found his two videos on YouTube last week under other people’s accounts.

After hearing Maxwell’s crude comments about women, how comfortable are residents, particularly women, going to feel contacting him about road problems? How will the town be perceived by the outside world? I can’t imagine that anyone who was thinking about moving to Thetford won’t have second thoughts, after seeing the videos.

“You can sugarcoat this all you want,” resident Clyde Cook told the board, “but to the general public, it looks like you’re condoning his behavior.”

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




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