Kenyon: In Norwich, search could have used a rescue

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

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

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 10-08-2023 2:05 AM

The parade of white men chosen to serve as town manager in Vermont’s wealthiest community marches on.

Brennan Duffy makes seven. For his sake, I hope seven is a lucky number.

Since Norwich switched — with voters’ approval — to a town manager form of government in 2002, six men have come and gone. None lasted more than 4½ years on the job.

Other than his gender and race, Duffy’s selection by the Norwich Selectboard is dumbfounding.

The board’s lack of transparency and behind-the-scenes maneuvering makes a mockery of Vermont’s open-meeting law. Duffy wasn’t so much appointed as he was anointed.

Let’s start with the timing.

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Duffy was tabbed to serve as interim town manager in December 2022. He replaced Rod Francis, who flamed out nine months into a five-year contract.

Enter Duffy, who arrived in Norwich with no previous experience of managing a town’s daily operations. He’d spent the previous 11 years overseeing economic development initiatives in Rutland. It appears from news reports that Duffy and his bosses, the Rutland Board of Aldermen, mutually agreed it was time for him to move on. He resigned in October 2022.

When Duffy arrived in Norwich a couple of months later, I got the impression he was a stopgap, a guy who could fill in at Tracy Hall until a national search run by an outside consultant came up with a list of experienced candidates for the Selectboard to pick from.

But the national search never got off the ground. The board didn’t bring in a consultant. Or post a job opening that gave a salary range.

Instead, the board held a Sept. 20 “emergency meeting,” which means a town’s governing board can huddle behind closed doors with little or no advance warning to the public. A second emergency meeting was held the following day.

Emergency meetings are allowed only when “unforeseen occurrences or conditions require immediate attention,” Jenny Prosser, in-house attorney for the Vermont Secretary of State Office, told me.

As examples, she cited Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and this summer’s disastrous flooding.

I’m not sure how an interim town manager’s contract qualifies as an emergency. In a news release announcing Duffy’s promotion, the board said it had recently received “time-sensitive information” that required fast action.

I wanted to ask board Chairwoman Marcia Calloway and Duffy more about it, but they didn’t respond to interview requests.

On Sept. 27, board members again retreated behind closed doors. Eighteen minutes later, they came out to announce they were voting that evening — in public, which is required under state law — to remove the interim tag from Duffy’s title.

The vote was 3-2. Calloway, Mary Layton and Priscilla Vincent voted to give Duffy the job. Roger Arnold and Pam Smith were opposed.

Duffy negotiated a sweet deal. His starting salary of $144,773, is roughly $40,000 more than what Francis earned. The contract puts Duffy in the same league as new Hartford Town Manager John Haverstock ($150,000) and Hanover Town Manager Alex Torpey ($160,000), who started last year.

The difference: Haverstock and Torpey are running much larger towns with many more employees.

Going by the most recent data on the Vermont Department of Taxes’ website, Norwich can afford to pay top dollar.

The 2021 median family adjusted gross income, derived from personal income tax returns, in Norwich was $190,208 — the highest in the state. (The statewide median was $84,152.)

Given Norwich’s financial resources, Duffy’s salary won’t break the bank. The question is why the board suddenly bumped up the annual pay for the position by $40,000 without informing the public.

There’s no telling how many qualified candidates would have expressed interest in job, if they’d known the starting pay’s goalposts had been moved.

“It would have attracted candidates who actually have town manager experience,” said Kris Clement, a longtime resident who is a regular at board meetings.

“We needed to look at a variety of candidates, including women and minorities, in the search,” Cheryl Lindberg, the elected town treasurer, told me. “That didn’t happen. We just got another white male.”

Clement deserves credit for shining light last week on how the board’s decision to hire Duffy had the markings of a backroom deal.

Clement started her digging by looking for the town’s personnel policies on Norwich’s municipal website. They weren’t to be found, she said. After obtaining a copy from a former board member, Clement posted parts pertaining to hiring policies on the town listserv.

In an “attempt to obtain the best qualified applicant response,” notice of vacancies for any town position must be posted for five business days in all town buildings, the policy states.

It’s the town manager’s responsibility to post vacancies, according to the document. I stopped by Duffy’s office on Thursday and Friday to ask why he hadn’t. He wasn’t in.

Duffy’s contract allows him to work remotely two days a week for up to 18 months. By then, he’s supposed to have moved from Rutland to the Upper Valley.

As someone who has lived in Norwich for 27 years, I’ve watched the ebb and flow (mostly ebb) of residents’ confidence in their Selectboard — no matter who was serving.

This year’s Town Meeting election results led to a changing of the guard. Two incumbents were ousted. Calloway kept her seat, joined by newcomers Vincent and Smith.

After the election, residents were “looking forward to a fresh start with a new town manager,” Clement said.

Instead, as the last couple of weeks have shown, all they’ve gotten is business as usual.

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