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Jim Kenyon: Norwich plays politics in ouster of resident from commission

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



Valley News Columnist
Saturday, May 25, 2019

At a recent Norwich Selectboard meeting, Chairman John Pepper assured the audience the ouster of resident Jeff Goodrich from a key appointed position in town wasn’t a “witch hunt.”

Maybe or maybe not.

In watching Norwich town government operate over the last 20 years or so, I’ve learned it doesn’t really matter who’s in charge — there’s no escaping the hidden agendas and palace intrigue.

Goodrich, a civil engineer who grew up in Norwich, has served as the town’s volunteer representative to the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission since 2012. The commission consists of 30 central Vermont towns with a legislative mandate to coordinate and weigh in on regional planning issues involving, among other things, the economy, environment and transportation. Each town has one voting member.

With Goodrich’s one-year term set to expire, the selectboard took up his re-appointment on April 24. Several board members, including Pepper, expressed concern about Goodrich’s spotty attendance record at Two Rivers’ meetings. In 2018, he missed six of the commission’s nine meetings.

It was partly due to a family illness, he said. But he also made an effort to attend the commission’s committee meetings, arguing that’s where much of the heavy lifting occurs.

Goodrich’s spotty attendance was legitimate criticism, and he’s done better as of late. This year, he’s attended all three meetings.

I asked Peter Gregory, Two Rivers’ executive director, for his assessment of Goodrich’s work.

“He did a great job,” Gregory said. “There were no issues here with Jeff.”

Goodrich’s engineering background was invaluable, particularly on transportation and water issues, he added.

Still, the selectboard voted 4-1 to not re-appoint Goodrich, but left the door open to reconsider the decision at its May 8 meeting. Between the two meetings, Goodrich talked individually with board members Roger Arnold, Mary Layton and Pepper, who all had opposed his re-appointment in April.

“I didn’t ask them to vote for me, but my impression from talking with each of them was that I should re-apply,” Goodrich told me.

At the May 8 meeting, Layton joined John Langhus, who had been in Goodrich’s corner from the beginning, in supporting him. But Pepper, Arnold, who was elected in March, and Claudette Brochu still wanted him out.

“Sometimes we need to change things up,” Pepper told me.

It was certainly within the board’s purview. But Goodrich’s heave-ho was a bit too orchestrated for my taste. And that’s where Town Manager Herb Durfee comes in.

Between the two votes, Durfee recruited Rod Francis, the town’s planning and zoning director, to apply for the position. Durfee pointed to Francis’ “extensive planning experience and knowledge, and his understanding of current (Norwich) planning.”

Just one problem: Francis doesn’t live in Norwich.

In a town of 3,400 people, how hard can it be to find a representative who has roots in the community?

No one expressed an interest, Durfee said.

Langhus, an attorney, raised an even bigger potential pitfall with Francis’ appointment. Francis reports to Durfee. To an extent, Francis keeping his $68,000-a-year job hinges on maintaining a good working relationship with his boss.

Langhus asked Francis how he’d vote on any Two Rivers issue where his thinking “conflicted” with Durfee’s.

Simple, Francis said. “I’m doing what my boss asks me to do,” he replied. “The boss is the boss.”

If board members and Durfee were looking for a yes man, it appears they found one. (Only Langhus voted against Francis’ appointment.)

I think there’s more to the story, however, than Goodrich’s opponents let on. Goodrich is a longtime member of the town’s planning board. Last year, he was instrumental in putting forth an updated Town Plan that would have created a high-density district along Route 5 South and River Road (north of Ledyard Bridge).

In exchange for permission to build commercial and market-priced homes, developers would have had to included a sizable amount of affordable housing in their plans.

For decades, Norwich’s moneyed elite has done little but pay lip service to the affordable housing crisis. The town’s last affordable housing project for working families was built in the early 1990s.

Goodrich is an outlier: a businessman (he’s president of Pathways Consulting in Lebanon) who wants to do more than just talk about affordable housing.

He hasn’t forgotten the Norwich he came from. Goodrich and his two brothers were raised by their single mom, who was a receptionist for a physician and an oral surgeon. As a teenager, Goodrich split and sold firewood to help with family expenses.

“I have an acute sense of the economic spectrum in our community,” he told me. “I want to help provide affordable housing across the workforce spectrum.”

But the plan to encourage environmentally-friendly development, including affordable housing, went up in flames last summer. Opponents claimed the plan would destroy Norwich’s rural character.

Last September, a watered-down version of the Town Plan was sent to the Two Rivers commission for approval. In a rare move, the commission overwhelmingly rejected Norwich’s proposal.

Last week, I asked Stuart Rogers, Thetford’s representative to Two Rivers and the town’s selectboard chairman, what had happened. It was the consensus of the commission, he said, that on the issue of affordable housing, Norwich had “stepped backwards, not forward.”

The same could be said of a recent Norwich Selectboard decision.

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