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Jim Kenyon: Managing expectations for Norwich’s town manager

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 2/15/2020 10:37:47 PM
Modified: 2/15/2020 10:43:49 PM

Last month, Norwich Town Manager Herb Durfee was out. This month, he’s back in — maybe. Next month, with a Town Meeting election on the calendar, who knows?

One thing is certain, however. The town’s Selectboard, which controls whether Durfee stays or goes, finds itself in a tangled mess. Then again, that’s nothing new.

Ever since Norwich created the town manager’s position to oversee the town’s daily operations in the early 2000s, the Selectboard — no matter who occupies its five seats — has often been a difficult boss to please.

A sample of what Durfee is up against?

In his most recent performance evaluation, the board upbraided Durfee for his “dependence on paper.” (I’m all for saving trees, but email doesn’t always cut it.)

If Durfee ends up getting the heave-ho, Norwich will be in the market for its seventh town manager in 15 years.

A few weeks ago that seemed a given. On Jan. 24, the board voted, 3-2, not to extend Durfee’s three-year contract, which expires April 30.

But after their inboxes swelled with emails from Durfee supporters, board members held a special meeting Monday.

“There was no warning that this decision was coming,” wrote Melissa Horwitz, vice chairwoman of the town’s planning commission. “This concerns me both because I think Herb has been an effective town manager and because of Norwich’s history of quickly dismissing town managers.”

Several former board members weighed in as well. Liz Blum urged the board to reconsider its January decision and “spare yourselves and the town the agony of hiring another manager yet again.”

At Monday’s meeting, a dozen or so residents banged the Keep-Herb drum. Durfee also reiterated how much he wanted to continue working for the town, but he acknowledged his communication skills need improving.

“I can get argumentative and defensive,” he said.

Although it wasn’t brought up on Monday, I’m betting some board members have wanted Durfee out since last summer’s fiasco involving the town’s finance director.

Durfee hired Donna Flies, who fell prey to a cyber scam shortly after starting the job that resulted in the loss of nearly $250,000 in taxpayers’ money.

After the loss was discovered, Brochu wrote in an email to Pepper that she was “losing faith” in how Durfee communicated with the board.

“Me too,” Pepper replied.

Is that reason to send Durfee packing? The money was recouped, thanks largely to Norwich’s insurer, and Flies no longer works for the town.

At the end of Monday’s 45-minute meeting, the board voted, 3-2, to “enter into discussion” with Durfee about a new contract.

Good news for Durfee and his supporters?

Sort of.

Board members Roger Arnold and Mary Layton are in Durfee’s corner. But judging by their votes on Monday, Vice Chairwoman Claudette Brochu and John Langhus continue to want him gone. Without naming names, Brochu said she’s heard from plenty of residents who find Durfee less than pleasant to deal with.

Then there’s Board Chairman John Pepper. After voting in January not to extend Durfee’s contract, he reopened the door last Monday. When I talked with him briefly after the vote, Pepper said the outpouring of townspeople’s support for Durfee helped persuade him to revisit a possible contract extension.

After three years on the board, Pepper, co-founder and CEO of the Boloco restaurant chain, isn’t running for reelection on March 3. If an agreement hasn’t been reached by then, Pepper’s replacement becomes the swing vote. (Two candidates, Rob Gere and Doug Wilberding, are on the Town Meeting ballot.)

I see no reason for the current board to keep Durfee hanging. Either they want him, or they don’t.

“For my own mental health, sooner rather than later (for a decision) would be great,” Durfee told me.

In a Feb. 7 letter to the board, Durfee proposed a two-year extension instead of another three-year deal. He’s also not seeking a big raise from his current $90,000 annual salary.

I’d think that would satisfy Brochu, at least. When Brochu, a retired nurse, ran in 2018 one of her priorities was finding cost savings in the town budget.

Good luck finding a qualified candidate to work for less than what Durfee’s making. Last year, Hartford gave new Town Manager Brannon Godfrey a starting salary of $130,000.

But Brochu, who is running unopposed for a second term, seems to think replacing Durfee won’t be a problem.

“I think we can find the manager of our dreams,” she said at Monday’s meeting. “I truly believe there is a perfect match out there.”

It sounds like an episode of The Bachelor.

In her letter supporting Durfee, resident Anne Garrigue reminded board members of a problem that could scare away candidates.

“The Selectboard itself may be difficult to work with,” she wrote.

From time to time, I’ve written critically of Durfee and some of the decisions he’s made. One in particular comes to mind. In 2018, he hired a now-defunct outfit to write and post stories on the DailyUV website (also no longer in business) that would portray Norwich only in a positive light.

Durfee probably didn’t appreciate it when I took him to task for wasting tax dollars. The next time I stopped by his office, however, he didn’t hold it against me.

That level of professionalism might not mean much to Durfee’s bosses. But with the board’s track record and what it’s willing to pay, Durfee’s detractors who think they can find someone better really are dreaming.

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




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