Elected official and employees clash at Grafton County complex

Grafton County Register of Deeds Kelley Monahan speaks at the Grafton County Primary Candidates Forum in Canaan, N.H., on Aug. 27, 2018. Monahan faces a primary challenge from fellow Democrat Liz Gesler. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Grafton County Register of Deeds Kelley Monahan speaks at the Grafton County Primary Candidates Forum in Canaan, N.H., on Aug. 27, 2018. Monahan faces a primary challenge from fellow Democrat Liz Gesler. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By JOHN LIPPMAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 08-14-2023 2:04 AM

NORTH HAVERHILL — A Grafton County judge has dismissed a complaint by a county department head who was seeking a restraining order against the county’s register of deeds in an escalating workplace conflict that is roiling the county government complex in North Haverhill.

Judge Peter Bornstein denied a petition by Grafton County Maintenance Superintendent James Oakes, who was seeking a restraining order against Kelley Monahan, the county’s seven-term elected register of deeds. In his complaint, Oakes said he was informed that Monahan made a comment about him to a maintenance department employee that Oakes considered a veiled threat.

The Aug. 4 evidentiary hearing on the complaint drew together individuals — the maintenance department chief, the register and a judge — who all work steps away from one another at the Grafton County complex in North Haverhill.

In dismissing Oakes’ request for a restraining order, Bornstein concluded that Oakes did not present sufficient evidence that Monahan posed a “credible and imminent threat” to Oakes’ safety.

“Even assuming that (Monahan) made the statement alleged … that statement is ambiguous, equivocal and not a direct threat,” Bornstein said in the ruling dated Aug. 7.

Oakes sought a court restraining order in July and detailed alleged instances of aggressive and unprofessional behavior. In particular, he focused on comments Monahan was alleged to have made to a maintenance employees in June when she encountered a maintenance truck in the handicap parking space. She told the worker that “her problems with Jim Oakes would soon be over (and) that readers would see it in the local newspapers,” according to the complaint.

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Monahan categorically denied making the comment. In a response she submitted to the court, Monahan said that her critics “completely fabricated this narrative.”

“This action by Jim Oakes is a desperate preemptive strike to discredit me in the eyes of the court and in the court of public opinion,” Monahan wrote. “It terrifies me that our retired military are conditioned to use cover-up, falsification of evidence, lies and intimidation to conduct the business of government.” (The military reference was because both Oakes and the recently hired maintenance department employee are Air Force veterans).

To support his claim, Oakes submitted 14 attachments as part of an ex parte motion detailing emails shared with county commissions and other county employees in which he described encounters with Monahan and her “unpredictable, explosive behavior, coupled with her absolute hatred of me.”

Several of the emails deal with claims and counter-claims among Oakes, Monahan and other county employees in regard to maintenance issues at the county government complex — ranging from the temperature of a storage room to computer server issues.

In reply to descriptions by county employees of their interactions with her, Monahan fired back that they are “lying” and “gaslighting,” according to the emails. In one, Monahan exclaims, “Disgusted with you!”

Monahan acknowledged in her written reply to the court that Oakes’ petition is the latest clash in what has been a contentious relationship throughout her 12 years in office.

“Jim Oakes and I have been in conflict since 2011 when I first took office,” Monahan wrote in her reply to Oakes’ petition. She accused Oakes of lying about her conduct and said seeking a restraining order against her is part of a campaign by a faction in county government to undermine and discredit her because she is an “assertive woman in a position of authority.”

“I questioned actions of this county since my first days. That is the problem the administration has always had with me, I question everything,” Monahan wrote.

Reached Thursday for comment, Monahan said that despite a suggestion the parties enter mediation, “this is now a matter for the court.”

“This situation has taken a long time to develop and will take a long time to unwind,” Monahan said.

Monahan concluded by saying she would refrain from further public comment on the matter.

Reached Friday, Oakes said he did not have anything to add beyond the allegations detailed in his complaint.

Outside the courtroom, Monahan’s alleged workplace behavior has attracted attention once more from the Grafton County Commissioners, who put into the record at their July 27 meeting a strongly worded letter admonishing Monahan for her “actions towards Grafton County employees.”

The letter was read aloud at the meeting after commissioners said that Monahan refused to meet with them to discuss their concerns. It informs Monahan that she is barred from communicating with anyone in the maintenance department “by any means” with the sole exception of “imminent threat of harm to county records” or “other urgent need” related to her duties as register.

Grafton County commissioners noted they have admonished Monahan as far back as 2019 for “repeated documented instances of disruptive and inappropriate behavior” that has “negatively impacted the ability of employees” to perform their jobs.

Following a “number of complaints” in 2022, the commissioners reminded Monahan that they had “expressly prohibited” her from using the county’s email system to contact other county employee outside her own department.

The commissioners said they would not tolerate “any Grafton County employee being treated in a disrespectful manner by elected officials.”

Enfield’s Wendy Piper, one of the three Grafton County commissioners, said in an interview that she and her colleagues — Martha McLeod and Omar Ahern — will be “investigating the next steps” they can take to address the situation at a regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday.

Because the register is an elected position, the commissioners cannot remove Monahan from her position. Instead, Piper said, that power is invested with the state representatives in Grafton County’s delegation to the Statehouse.

“We’ve tried to stop this behavior. We’ve taken measures to stop this behavior,” Piper said. “But we haven’t been able to because she’s not an employee. She’s an elected official.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.