Jim Kenyon: Missed management in Norwich is all about the Benjamins

Valley News Columnist
Published: 10/31/2021 7:14:10 AM
Modified: 10/31/2021 7:14:11 AM

In one of his final acts as Norwich’s town manager, Herb Durfee informed residents through the community Listserv that the town’s transfer station could “no longer accept payment for services with $100 bills.”

No wonder the Norwich Selectboard decided Durfee must go.

Durfee wrote the Listserv post after one Saturday morning when a half-dozen residents asked transfer station attendants to make change for C-notes.

Clearly, Durfee didn’t understand his Norwich clientele. Did he really expect them to carry anything less than a roll of Benjamins? It’s bad enough the transfer station doesn’t accept bitcoin.

With the Selectboard opting not to renew Durfee’s contract that expired Aug. 30, the town is again looking for someone to oversee its daily operations.

Planning and Zoning Director Rod Francis will likely do double duty until Durfee’s successor arrives, which will be February at the earliest. By my count, Francis is the seventh guy (apparently, Norwich doesn’t think a woman can handle the job) to hold the position since it was created in the early 2000s.

Why Durfee, who was previously the town manager in Fair Haven, Vt., was no longer considered right for job after four years is hard to pinpoint. The five-member board has been less than forthright.

In 2020, the board put together a so-called improvement plan for Durfee, which he shared with the public. The plan called for Durfee to undergo additional finance training and beef up his communication skills with board members, among other things.

It was fairly clear, though, that it didn’t matter how many boxes Durfee checked off. “I’m sorry this is not working out, but I think it’s time to move on,” Selectboard Vice Chairwoman Mary Layton said following the parting-of-ways-vote in late July.

Why do Norwich town managers have a short shelf life?

I figured Liz Blum was a good person to ask. She’s lived in town for nearly 35 years and is a former board member who participated in the initial two manager searches.

“Norwich is a finicky town,” Blum said. “It sees itself as exceptional.”

Having lived in Norwich for 25 years myself, I got her drift. The more rich people a town has, the more public employees are seen as hired help. They’re expendable.

While Durfee failed to meet his bosses’ expectations, I’m not sure the town can do much better.

The pay that Norwich is offering hardly seems sufficient to entice a seasoned management-type from outside the area to pull up stakes. The starting salary range of $85,000 to $102,000 might sound good on paper, but is subpar by Norwich standards. In 2017 — the most recent information available from the Vermont Department of Taxes — Norwich’s median family income was $141,660. (The statewide median was $70,500.)

Some potential candidates will also think twice if they hope to buy property in town. The median sales price of a single-family home in Norwich was $649,000 in 2018. Now that some of the pandemic’s wealthy urban refugees have landed, I imagine the housing market will only get tighter.

On Thursday, Board Chairman Roger Arnold told me that with the application deadline approaching, the town has about two dozen candidates.

Their names and resumes are being kept secret, which is disappointing but not surprising. After hearing the board had hired the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, or VLCT, for short, to run the search, I knew any chance of transparency was doomed.

VLCT, which was founded in 1967, bills itself as a nonprofit with a “mission of serving and strengthening Vermont local government.”

Over the years, I’ve come across officials in some towns who are under the impression that VLCT is an arm of state government. It’s not.

I see VLCT as a Montpelier lobbying group that uses taxpayer money to protect selectboard members and other local government officials from public scrutiny.

By keeping the public in the dark about town manager searches, VLCT — and, in this case, Norwich Selectboard members — don’t have to worry about being second-guessed.

Norwich is paying VLCT up to $7,250 to conduct the search, according to its contract, but residents will have little say in the hiring process. A screening committee, consisting of two board members, two residents and a town employee, will meet privately with candidates.

That’s hardly open government.

Residents won’t have an opportunity to meet or hear from any of the candidates in a public forum. The public won’t be privy to the names and credentials of female or minority applicants — if there are any at all — whom the board bypassed.

“The board has a certain amount of faith and trust in the plan brought forward by VLCT,” Arnold told me.

Put another way, the board bought into VLCT’s argument that town manager searches must be conducted behind closed doors because that’s the way it’s always done in Vermont.

Norwich is abiding by the state’s public meeting law, which allows for town manager searches to be conducted in private, VLCT Executive Director Ted Brady said in a phone interview Friday.

Brady told me searches need to be done in secret (my word, not his) to “protect people’s privacy.” It’s in a town’s best interest to “make sure that candidates feel comfortable applying for the job and talking about why they want the job,” he said. “If you have an existing position, perhaps you’re not interested in letting your employer know you’re searching.”

To my way of thinking, candidates who insist on confidentiality aren’t cut out for the job. They should find a profession that doesn’t require them to work in the public spotlight or feed at the public trough.

And if they’re interested in becoming Norwich’s next town manager, they probably should be ready to make change for a hundred.

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

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