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New Guidelines Said to Improve Norwich ‘Selectboard Dynamic’

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/4/2017 12:09:25 AM
Modified: 8/4/2017 12:09:34 AM

Norwich — Those hoping the Selectboard can shed its reputation for divisiveness, contentiousness and marathon meetings received an auspicious sign back in May: A new set of guidelines meant to usher in an era of civility passed the five-member board by, yes, a unanimous vote.

Board members say a more respectful tone has prevailed, so far.

“I will say that the Selectboard dynamic is greatly improved,” said Chairwoman Mary Layton, who joined the board in 2015 and sat through many a long meeting, “and that (new Town Manager) Herb Durfee is proving to be a very capable manager.”

Durfee was hired by the previous Selectboard just before this year’s Town Meeting.

The arrival of new members in March, perhaps combined with unpleasant memories of past discord, prompted the Selectboard to enlist a professional mediator who helped it draft a new set of guidelines that focus on consensus and mutual respect. The board unanimously adopted the new policy at its May 24 meeting.

“What we’ve hoped to do here is establish guardrails so that the community can have confidence that, regardless of where we stand on issues, we’re working on behalf of the community, and first and foremost it’s not personal,” said Vice Chairman John Pepper, one of two new members to join the board from the private sector in March.

Pepper, co-founder and CEO of the Boloco burrito restaurant chain, ran on a platform of bringing civility to town government — as did John Langhus, formerly of Norwich Solar Technologies.

“Changing the tone on the board was as important to us as any particular policy,” Langhus said in an interview on Tuesday. “We had seen a lot of — what’s the right word? — just a lot of infighting amongst the board, which made it difficult to get people in town behind the decisions that were being made.”

The new guidelines describe themselves as “a model of well-functioning, cohesive small town government in which our thoughtful actions on complex issues and respectful treatment of others bring out the best in ourselves and inspire confidence in the residents of Norwich to become active and engaged participants in the town.”

The policy calls for, among other things, “open minds and fresh perspective,” “respect and civility in the face of disagreement and contention,” and “disciplined time keeping.”

“Volunteers don’t get paid by the hour,” the guidelines warn in an attempt to curb three- and sometimes four-hour meetings of yore.

Lauren Girard Adams, a professional mediator from Norwich, helped the board draft the one-page document this spring — at no cost to the town, board members said.

Langhus, who worked as a negotiator before joining the board, said his business background had helped shape his approach to intra-Selectboard communications.

“I do spend a lot of my time professionally working on maintaining those repeat relationships,” he said, “so that you can come back to the table next week and have that discussion.”

Langhus said he didn’t know how commonly selectboards in other towns resort to professional mediators to address ingrained strife, but in the private sector, “it’s incredibly common. … It’s just a really great way to keep emotions down in the midst of the discussion.”

Although the waters may have calmed these days for the Selectboard, a new storm is brewing for the Planning Commission, which is in the midst of revisions to the Town Plan.

The plan, which expired in December, is a periodically updated document that reflects the community’s vision for land use and development.

Residents who opposed the commission’s idea — now shelved — for a potential new zoning district allowing high-density development now are demanding a townwide vote on the Town Plan, for fear that language in the plan could pave the way for similar zoning amendments.

Such intensity and engagement on the part of Norwich residents — incited by a variety of issues ranging from the structure of town government to the rebuilding of the town’s bandstand — is a well-established pattern in the town, and one that seems to carry over to the Selectboard.

Langhus acknowledged that Norwich over the years has developed a reputation as a place where deeply involved residents argue passionately for their vision for the community.

“It’s absolutely the reputation, and I do think it’s somewhat deserved,” he said, adding that policy discussions in town weren’t necessarily “argumentative for argument’s sake.”

Pepper said he had considered ways to encourage respect and civility throughout town, but ultimately settled on making the Selectboard a model for others to follow.

“I’ve thought about it,” he said, “but I do believe it starts with the Selectboard. Let’s set an example of how we can communicate with each other when we don’t agree.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.




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