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Jim Kenyon: Norwich road crew hits rough patch and town paves over private eye probe

Valley News Columnist
Published: 3/27/2022 8:17:07 AM
Modified: 3/27/2022 8:16:11 AM

The Upper Valley’s back roads are taking more of a beating than usual this mud season. Still they’re in better shape than Norwich’s highway department.

None of the eight people who were working out of the town’s highway garage as recently as mid-2021 are there today. Six equipment operators — the town’s entire road crew — have all voted with their feet. At least three are now with highway departments in other Upper Valley towns.

Infighting and low morale have plagued the town’s highway crew for a while. Indifference on the part of higher-ups hasn’t helped.

It was only after receiving complaints about sexual harassment inside the department last year that town officials seemed to wake up.

Norwich brought in a private investigator, William Burgess, president of Burgess Loss Prevention Associates in Lebanon, to look into the allegations.

The Selectboard and Town Manager Rod Francis have tried their darndest to keep the matter hush-hush. They even teamed up with the town’s Burlington law firm, McNeil Leddy and Sheahan, to hide the paper trail.

And Norwich officials might have pulled it off, if former and current town employees hadn’t blown the whistle. In recent weeks, they’ve shared details and documents. I agreed not to use their names in this column.

After learning about Burgess’ investigation, I asked the town how much it was paying for his sleuthing. Under the state’s Public Records Act, which dates back to the post-Watergate era, the information should have been readily available to anyone who asked.

Imagine my surprise when the town responded via email: “We are not and have not been under contract with Bill Burgess or Burgess Loss Prevention Associates; we have no records pertaining to your request.”

That’s where the Burlington law firm comes in.

At a Sept. 22 public meeting, Francis informed the Selectboard that he had sought the town attorney’s advice on “addressing concerns” raised by employees in the public works department.

The five-member board immediately went behind closed doors to “consider attorney-client communications,” which under Vermont’s sorry excuse for an open meeting law is a surefire way to avoid public scrutiny.

In sifting through minutes of board meetings for the last six months, I didn’t see any mention of Burgess or his investigation.

When I pressed the issue last week, the town finally acknowledged that McNeil Leddy and Sheahan had hired Burgess on its behalf. The firm also agreed to pay Burgess out of its pocket with the understanding that it would get reimbursed by Norwich.

It was a clever ruse to keep the public in the dark and skirt public records requests. Without knowing the law firm was playing middleman, the public would have a difficult time following the money.

At the board’s most recent meeting Wednesday, the investigation into sexual harassment complaints wasn’t mentioned. Before the night was over, however, the board and Francis again huddled in private. Nearly an hour later, board chairman Roger Arnold announced “no action” was taken.

On Thursday, Francis told me that after getting caught up on the completed investigation, “There was nothing the Selectboard thought it had to offer.”

I can think of something. How about letting the public in on the amount of taxpayers money spent on the investigation?

After a couple phone calls to McNeil Leddy and Sheahan, I got the answer Thursday from Francis: $5,351.

For one of the state’s wealthiest communities that’s not big bucks. And from the documents I’ve seen, Norwich officials have bigger worries than a private eye’s tab.

They’ve allowed the town’s highway department to turn into dysfunction junction.

In interviews, Burgess learned that workers were divided into two groups. It created a “hostile work environment as one group (was) constantly trying to undermine the other.”

A former employee told me, “You couldn’t even get a wrench (out of the department’s toolbox) without asking permission” from someone with more seniority.

Burgess, who had finished his investigation by early March, found no violations of town policy, Francis wrote in a letter to someone who was questioned during the investigation.

Burgess had “determined that only one of the claims of a sexual nature could be substantiated, but in light of all the surrounding circumstances, it did not meet the definition of sexual harassment under the Town’s Sexual Harassment Policy,” Francis wrote.

When the most recent — and hopefully last — snowstorm hit on a Saturday morning a couple weeks ago, three of the four large plow trucks in the town’s fleet sat idle.

It wasn’t the fault of the town crew — or what was left of one. A crew that had six in its ranks last summer was down to three.

More important, only one of the remaining equipment operators held a commercial driver’s license, or CDL for short. (By comparison, neighboring Thetford has five highway workers with CDLs.) Federal law requires a CDL to operate the 13-ton six-wheelers that are the workhorses of town highway departments.

With heavy equipment operators who have CDLs in high demand, many communities are having difficulty filling jobs where the starting pay is often around $20 an hour.

Norwich’s troubles, however, began before the current worker shortage.

After Andy Hodgdon, the town’s longtime public works director, left abruptly in 2018, his position remained vacant for nearly 1½ years.

In 2020, the town hired Larry Wiggins, who had an engineering background but not a CDL. He lasted a year before retiring.

At a Sept. 8 meeting, Francis informed the Selectboard that the preferred candidate to replace Wiggins had turned down the job. (It would take another four months to fill the position.)

Meanwhile, the highway department, which has an annual operating budget of more than $1.5 million, was leaking oil.

Between Aug. 21 and Dec. 3, three equipment operators and a part-time administrative assistant moved on. With snow starting to fall, Norwich was down to two equipment operators with CDLs. In early January, it added a third.

Still shorthanded, Norwich tried to get by using smaller trucks that don’t require a CDL to operate. It also received help from Thetford, which took up some plowing chores in exchange for sand, Thetford Town Manager Bryan Gazda told me.

In mid-January, Francis hired Chris Kaufman to head public works. Kaufman, who has worked in project management for consulting and engineering companies across the country, doesn’t have experience operating heavy equipment and doesn’t have a CDL, Francis told me.

No doubt that Kaufman inherited a truckload of problems. The sexual harassment complaints were lodged before his arrival, but the investigation into the allegations was still ongoing.

Two experienced equipment operators who held CDLs quit in late February, leaving just one. A third worker who didn’t have a CDL left in mid-March, after jawing with the new boss.

The employee, who had worked for the town for five years, told me that he was suspended without pay for insubordination. Originally, Kaufman levied a two-day suspension before reducing it to one day.

Although he hasn’t had the job for long, Kaufman has already shown a tendency to sweat the small stuff. I was sent a photo of a directive posted in February on a white board in the highway garage. It reads: No coats, gloves, dirty gear in lunch room or on chairs.

Kaufman, who declined to talk with me, might want to rethink his management style. It’s not kindergarten.

Highway crews are plowing roads, cutting up fallen trees and cleaning out culverts, sometimes working through the night in all kinds of nasty weather.

It can be a hard, tiring job. If a worker leaves a coat on the back of a chair during a coffee break, does it really matter?

In a piece of good news for the town, two equipment operators with CDLs started work last Monday. Norwich continues to advertise crew openings, plus the part-time administrative assistant’s position.

On Wednesday, the Selectboard also approved Kaufman’s request to purchase new lockers for his crew. It fits neatly with his no-coats-and-gloves-in-the-break-room rule.

The cost of the lockers is estimated at $5,300 — almost as much as the bill for the private investigator that Norwich officials didn’t want the public to know about.

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




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