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Norwich selectboard rejects extending town manager’s contract

  • Herbert A. Durfee III

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/27/2020 9:55:26 PM
Modified: 1/27/2020 9:55:08 PM

NORWICH — Town Manager Herb Durfee soon could be looking for a new job after a divided Selectboard declined last week to extend his contract past its April 30 expiration date.

The board voted, 3-2, on Friday evening against entering talks “regarding a new contract,” according to meeting minutes.

Board members Mary Layton and Roger Arnold supported opening contract talks while Chairman John Pepper, Vice Chairwoman Claudette Brochu and board member John Langhus were opposed.

“So basically, it means that they’re not going to offer me a contract,” Durfee said Monday morning. “Until they act differently, that’s what I understand is going on.”

“Where I want to be is Norwich,” he added. “My desire is to be in Norwich. I enjoy being in Norwich.”

The vote took place at the end of a roughly hour-long meeting, most of which was held in executive session.

While Durfee’s current three-year agreement ends at the end of April, it stipulates that any new offer must be made 90 days in advance, which is Friday.

Pepper said Monday there’s still time to reconsider the vote, although he declined to say whether the Selectboard will call another meeting this week.

“The bottom line is that right now, there’s just a contract that’s still in place,” he said, adding officials are trying to determine “what’s best for Norwich.”

“We’re just trying to make a good decision,” Pepper said.

Durfee came to Norwich in 2017 promising to be a facilitator who would listen to residents and draw conclusions from consensus. He beat out 54 other candidates for the job and earned an initial annual salary of $84,427. In 2019, he made $89,780.

Durfee previously served as the manager of Fair Haven, Vt., a town of 2,700 people with a roughly $2 million annual operating budget. He lives in Grand Isle, Vt., on weekends and has an apartment in Norwich.

During his time at Tracy Hall, Durfee spearheaded recovery efforts in the wake of a July 1, 2017, storm that flooded roads, washed away driveways and damaged culverts throughout the Upper Valley. Norwich ultimately received $1.4 million in federal recovery aid to rebuild.

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

A report on the scam released by the town in October appeared to hint at discord at the town offices. It included an Aug. 25 email Brochu sent to the board lamenting the lack of a written town manager’s report in an upcoming meeting packet.

“I would find it hard to believe nothing of note was happening except for what was listed on the town agenda,” she wrote. “I am losing faith.”

“Me too,” Pepper replied.

In 2017, Durfee was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol during a crash with a large Vermont Agency of Transportation plow truck on I-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 the following weeks, Norwich officials stood by Durfee.

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 said Monday that the Selectboard had identified several areas of improvement in its recent town manager evaluation, including providing regular reports.

He said the board was disappointed collective bargaining talks hadn’t progressed faster and also wanted him to be more organized.

“I think they understand that there are a lot of things going on and they think perhaps I should be doing a better job prioritizing work,” Durfee said. “Any employee anywhere, there are areas to improve upon. If I had the opportunity, I would be more than happy to work more closely with the board to figure out and focus in on some of those areas of improvement.”

Pepper said there’s no current tension between Durfee and the board.

“Generally speaking, we’re just supportive of our department heads,” he said. “We’re supportive of our town manager and we want them to succeed.”

However, this isn’t the first time Norwich’s Selectboard has wrangled with whether to keep its town manager.

Durfee replaced Neil Fulton, who resigned in 2016 after 4½ years of service.

Fulton’s leave followed a year where Selectboard members, often behind closed doors, discussed his performance and whether he needed to sign a formal contract. He worked without a contract for his entire employment with Norwich.

“I don’t want to be a distraction, and I don’t want to be an issue in the upcoming election,” Fulton told the Valley News at the time.

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

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