Thank you for your interest in and support of the Valley News.

An anonymous donor has agreed to MATCH every dollar donated up to $28,500 in our hosting of journalists Frances Mize and Alex Driehaus for their one-year placements with the Valley News through Report for America, a national service program that boosts local news by harnessing community support. Donate today and DOUBLE the impact of your support.

Staffing issues keep town in a twist

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 9/29/2022 8:53:40 PM
Modified: 9/30/2022 8:44:04 AM

NORWICH — Worker shortages, particularly in public works and the police department, have plagued Norwich over the past year, and community members have been vocal in their displeasure with how the town’s leaders have handled finding replacements.

In the town’s latest leadership change, Norwich Selectboard Chairman Roger Arnold, who has said that community members share some responsibility in the town’s inability to hire and retain staff, announced at Wednesday night’s Selectboard meeting that he would be stepping down as chairman.

In a recording of the meeting, Arnold said he needed to take a step back from the various duties required of the board’s chairman, noting that he was also “taxed” with having a baby at home.

“Love for my family obligates me to step back from the uniquely challenging role of chair,” Arnold wrote in a Thursday email. He noted that he plans to serve the remainder of his three-year term.

Arnold’s announcement comes following the formation of a community-action group, Stand Up for Norwich. The group, which was co-founded by Norwich residents Manu Tesone and Omer Trajman and claims to have more than 100 members, is aiming to identify and recruit three candidates to run for the Selectboard with the goal of bringing back “competent oversight and management” to the town.

The group held its first meeting, which Tesone said more than 50 Norwich residents attended, on Sept. 19 at the Norwich Inn. The meeting’s agenda, as noted in the group’s Listserv announcement, included discussion of “deteriorating” town infrastructure, limited police coverage and a desire to “develop a strategy” to rebuild public-safety services that will “receive a clear majority of the vote in March 2023.”

Conversations between Tesone and Trajman on how to help support the town accelerated into action this summer following the resignation of Norwich’s then-Police Chief Simon Keeling in June of this year, Tesone said.

The announcement of Stand Up for Norwich’s first meeting followed the Norwich Selectboard’s Sept. 14 statement on the town website announcing that they were looking to hire a consultant to help with “collaborative team building between paid town staff and elected officials” by March of next year.

Tesone said his organization is seeking answers from the Selectboard on questions pertaining to exactly what led to an exodus of four equipment operators within public works and three officers (including Keeling) from the police department over the past year.

“(The mass of resignations) isn’t just a coincidence, especially in an environment where finding new people is difficult,” Tesone said. “Why did those people quit? With Stand Up for Norwich, we decided we need to have an organization to bring together the community and start getting answers to these really basic, reasonable questions as to what is going on.”

The finger-pointing in Norwich goes both ways, as municipal officials say that residents may be contributing to the difficulties the town is having hiring workers.

In the face of ongoing worker shortages and mounting criticism from town residents on a perceived lack of transparency from the Norwich Selectboard, Arnold, the board’s chairman, said in an interview on Sept. 22 that the public should consider whether their “demeanor to town staff and public officials” is playing a pivotal role for why someone may not want to work for the town.

“We respect and appreciate how everyone shows up that expresses concern for their government,” Arnold said. “But they should nonetheless recognize their possible role in contributing to a negative community culture (in Norwich).”

Arnold said the Selectboard recently approved a one-time 5% cost-of-living adjustment increase with the goal of employee retention. He hopes the hiring of a consultant will help town staff build a collaborative working environment where “everyone knows their roles and responsibilities” and can work together on a “singular mission and supportive community.”

However, Arnold said, the board expects there to be “challenges” in finding an available consultant because they’re currently quite in demand, hence the March 2023 deadline.

Also noted in the Selectboard’s Sept. 14 statement was its decision to direct Vice Chairwoman Mary Layton to arrange meetings with elected officials, again with the goal of promoting collaboration and “meaningful interactions” between town representatives and town staff. “We feel like it’s our responsibility to engage differently than we have been,” Arnold said.

The subject of the Selectboard’s transparency in its dealings has been a hot-button issue in the town over the past year. In August, town resident Stuart Richards, who has long been involved in Norwich’s civic affairs, filed a public-records request for a litany of town documents.

“There has been a lack of transparency on the part of the Norwich Selectboard and an unwillingness to answer many reasonable questions asked by the public as well as an unwillingness to schedule an agenda item to answer questions posed by the public,” Richards wrote in his request to the Selectboard on Aug. 3. “The way the public’s concerns are being treated regarding the absence of a police force, problems in the DPW department, understaffing and turnover in several departments has been disturbing to many.”

The town’s handling of investigations into an alleged “toxic workplace” in the town’s highway department also has been of key concern to community stakeholders. In April, the town hired a human-resources consultant, HR Happens, a Vermont firm run by Mark Heyman, to develop recommendations related to complaints on town employees.

The Selectboard’s Sept. 14 statement noted that “no report or presentation has been offered to the Board to date” from HR Happens. It also stated that an independent investigator was hired in May based on employee conversations with HR Happens but that there were no “violations of law or town policies” found in a confidential presentation to the Selectboard.

Arnold said the investigation put HR Happens’ work for the town on hold, but that he doesn’t know if or when it would resume. Francis said the town has paid $3,900 to HR Happens for their services up to this point.

In an email Thursday, Arnold said he’d be stepping down following a reorganization of the Selectboard that is expected to take place during their second meeting in October, currently slated for Oct. 26.

Ray Couture can be reached at 1994rbc@gmail.com.

CORRECTION: Manu Tesone is a co-founder of the group Stand Up for Norwich. His last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.




Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784
603-298-8711

 

© 2021 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy