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Jim Kenyon: Civics and Civility

  • 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.


Tuesday, August 07, 2018

In June, I wrote about a scuffle that erupted at an Orford Selectboard meeting over the job that the town’s highway crew did — or didn’t do, depending on your point of view — cleaning up after a sudden windstorm knocked out power and brought down tree limbs in parts of the community.

The New Hampshire State Police investigated the altercation.

So what came of it? Orford resident Lawrence Hibbard, 62, was recently charged with simple assault for allegedly grabbing Selectboard member Paul Goundrey by the shirt collar at the May 9 meeting. Goundrey told me that his cotton shirt was torn and he had suffered a bruise on his collarbone.

In legal parlance, Hibbard “did knowingly cause unprivileged physical contact to another,” the arrest report alleges.

Hibbard, a logger, has pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor. His trial is scheduled for Oct. 1 in Lebanon District Court.

Now that the case is in the court system it probably makes sense for Hibbard to fight it. If he loses, the maximum he could be fined is $1,200 — no small amount, for sure — but more important, a conviction carries no jail time. So unless Hibbard is offered a plea deal that reduces the charge from a misdemeanor to a violation — eliminating the potential of a criminal record — it’s worth rolling the dice.

Hibbard’s attorney, Len Harden, who has an office in Lebanon, told me on Tuesday that he couldn’t comment because he hadn’t received the police affidavit. When I checked at the courthouse on Monday, the state police still had not handed it in.

As I wrote a couple of months ago, Orford (population 1,200) is going through a rough patch. The town seems divided into factions. Like much of the country, Orford’s battle lines have a lot to do with who voted for whom in the 2016 presidential election.

Also in play is the friction between old-timers vs. newcomers that occasionally boils over in many small towns. Except in Orford, you can have lived in town for 20 years, and still be considered a carpetbagger.

But as the trouble at the Selectboard meeting demonstrated, Orford is taking the squabbling to new heights.

On April 30, the three-member Selectboard abruptly fired road agent Roger Hadlock. The dispute was partly over whether the town’s road crew should be allowed to work four 10-hour days with Fridays off in the summer.

Some people in town argued that with all the nights, weekends and holidays that the crew puts in during the winter they deserved a bit of a break. Others wouldn’t hear it. They’re pushing for the board to install a time clock in the town garage to keep track of the crew’s comings and goings.

Hadlock’s interim replacement, Terry Straight, who was the subject of Hibbard’s ire, didn’t survive the summer. He quit in July, leaving two openings on the three-man crew.

In May, longtime Town Administrator Sheri Clifford also quit, claiming that Selectboard member Dave Smith told her in a private conversation that she was “hated in town.” Smith denied making the remark, calling it a “complete fabrication.”

Goundrey, who retired as Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s grounds supervisor last year, submitted his Selectboard resignation shortly after the infamous May 9 meeting.

When I interviewed Goundrey and Hibbard separately in June, both men acknowledged that they could have handled the situation better.

After Hibbard lambasted the road crew, which was down to one worker at the time of the storm, Goundrey let fly with an F-bomb. “I just kind of snapped,” Goundrey told me.

Goundrey then headed for the door, but Hibbard stood in his way. Their brief altercation was “broken up by several other attendees” of the meeting, according to board minutes.

Goundrey was “out of control, but I guess I was a little bit, too,” Hibbard said.

When he got home that night, Goundrey reported the incident to state police. (At the time, Orford didn’t have a police chief.)

After fielding Goundrey’s complaint, Trooper Derek Newcomb interviewed Hibbard. “People are making more out of this than needs to be,” said Hibbard when we talked in his driveway in June.

Goundrey, who has served on the Selectboard off and on since 1985, told me when I called him Monday that he doesn’t regret getting police involved.

“I swore, and raised my voice, but I never said anything to (Hibbard) personally or threatened him in any way,” Goundrey said. “Not that this is earth shattering, but there’s no reason for all this tension. Physical violence is not acceptable.”

I agree.

Still it’s unfortunate that this became a police matter that has now made its way to the courthouse.

Gone are the days when two men, who both seemed to have lost their cool, could be brought together to talk through their differences over coffee. Or as an olive branch, a new shirt offered to replace the one that was torn.

No doubt, Orford will eventually have a fully staffed road crew that perhaps keeps everyone in town happy. More important, though, will be the re-establishment of a level of civility that will allow townspeople to have their disagreements without resorting to violence, police or the courts.

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