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Norwich Selectboard votes to part ways with town manager

  • Herbert A. Durfee III

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/2/2021 11:48:36 AM
Modified: 8/2/2021 9:35:12 PM

NORWICH — Town Manager Herb Durfee’s four-year tenure overseeing Norwich’s daily operations will end later this month after the Selectboard decided last week not to renew his contract.

The board voted unanimously Wednesday night to work with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns to hire an interim town manager to replace Durfee.

Then, in a separate 4-0 vote, the board decided not to offer him another contract. Durfee’s current 15-month agreement ends on Aug. 30.

“I’m sorry this is not working out, but I think we need to move on,” Selectboard Vice Chairwoman Mary Layton said following the vote. “You know, I’m really sorry. It’s a very somber feeling in this room right now, so it’s difficult.”

Layton, who abstained from the second vote to not renew Durfee’s contract, said in an email Monday that the motion took her by surprise and “seemed redundant.”

“It seemed unkind and unnecessary,” said Layton, a former Selectboard chairwoman, who added that Norwich needs to look forward to new management. “I hope we can do this with grace, competence and kindness.”

None of the town’s five Selectboard members explained why they decided to seek a fresh face for Tracy Hall. Roger Arnold, the board’s chairman, declined to elaborate in a phone interview Monday, saying simply that they are letting the contract lapse.

Meanwhile, the 58-year-old Durfee said during an interview in his office on Monday morning that he’s not entirely sure why the board didn’t offer him a new contract, although there was some contention that he wasn’t doing enough strategic planning.

“I certainly tried my best to try to stay with Norwich and be accommodating and changing to the things that the board was looking for from my perspective,” he said.

Under his current agreement, he makes $90,911 and is supposed to follow a job performance plan, which came about after a similar situation early last year where the Selectboard initially voted, 3-2, against entering talks “regarding a new contract.”

The board later reversed that decision after facing public pressure, and Durfee’s employment became a campaign issue ahead of an upcoming Town Meeting vote.

“I had basically an ongoing evaluation, for lack of a better term, a personal improvement plan,” he said. “I think to a degree, some of it related to (the board) feeling that I didn’t improve in certain areas.”

The current contact allows for four quarterly reviews and the improvement plan, which Durfee made public, called for him to attend additional finance training, issue monthly reports and present more complete budget information in October.

“It just seems that there’s — despite I think all the things that have occurred since I’ve been here positively and practically — that they just don’t see me as the person for the role, which is too bad,” Durfee said.

There has been some turnover in Town Hall. Norwich is currently without a police chief after Jennifer Frank left for a job in Windsor, is searching for a new public works director and only recently announced the hiring of a finance director after that position was left vacant for two years.

Durfee was responsible for hiring — and later firing — Finance Director Donna Flies, who fell victim in 2019 to a cyber scam that resulted in the loss of almost $250,000. The money was later recovered.

However, Durfee also presided over several improvements, including the long-awaited renovation of Norwich’s public safety facilities and the town’s public works building. 

During his tenure, he’s reorganized the town’s yearly budgeting process, ushered in a new town plan and kick-started a capital planning program. 

Most importantly, Durfee said, he worked to share more information with the Selectboard and other town bodies. 

“I believe that I originally was hired to bring a lot more transparency and collaboration to the board from the town manager’s office and that’s one thing I really tried to do over the fours years that I’ve been here,” he said. 

The town manager also led efforts to clean up from a July 2017 storm that washed out roads and driveways throughout the Upper Valley, prompting a federal disaster declaration for the region.

“Herb basically said ‘we’ve got to get the school buses running over back roads that are out by this winter’ and pulled a rabbit out of a hat to make it happen,” said Jeff Goodrich, a Norwich resident and engineer who worked with town officials on their response to the storm. 

Goodrich said the town manager worked well with his staff, state and federal officials to ultimately reimburse about $1.4 million in repairs. 

As a manager, Durfee is known to care for Norwich’s town employees and does a “tremendous job” to ensure they’re properly resourced, said Frank, now the Windsor police chief. “I think he excelled at allowing department heads to complete their jobs while also providing assistance when needed.”

Frank said she worked closely with the town manager when crafting the police department’s strategic plan and capital improvement budget. During both efforts, she said, Durfee encouraged officials to look beyond immediate needs to plot long-term goals.

The two also collaborated on Norwich’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which required the town to quickly adapt to changing conditions.

“He was consistently available and an asset to the community at large,” Frank said.

Town officials stood by Durfee in 2017 when he was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol during a crash with a Vermont Agency of Transportation plow truck on Interstate 89 in Colchester, Vt. 

Police said at the time that Durfee had an estimated blood alcohol level of 0.111%, above the 0.08% legal threshold for adult drivers in Vermont. 

In 2018, he pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of negligent operation with alcohol in his system and received a 30- to 60-day suspended jail sentence and was placed on probation.

Durfee, who grew up in the Burlington area and graduated from the University of Vermont in 1985, said Monday that he intends to stay at Tracy Hall through the end of his contract. He also is searching for another job

Before accepting the Norwich job in March 2017, Durfee served for four years as the town manager of Fair Haven, Vt., in Rutland County.

“I’m still interested in working so I need to find the capstone to my career,” he said.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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