×

Frayed Connections in Orford: Physical Altercation at Meeting Raises Questions of Civility

  • Orford selectmen, from left, David Smith, Jim McGoff, and Chair John Adams, discuss plans to hire a temporary administrative assistant while looking for a permanent replacement for former Town Administrator Sheri Richards, during their meeting in Orford, N.H., Wednesday, June 13, 2018. Orford resident Tom Thomson is in the foreground at left. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Paul Goundrey quit his position on the Orford, N.H., Selectboard after getting in confrontation with a resident. Goundrey attended the town's selectboard meeting on Wednesday, June 13, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Orford, N.H., resident Tom Thomson listens to a question during a report, Wednesday, June 13, 2018, on a recent meeting he attended with the selectboard and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services concerning storm damage in town. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Orford selectmen, from left, David Smith, Jim McGoff, and Chair John Adams, discuss plans to hire a temporary administrative assistant while looking for a permanent replacement for former Town Administrator Sheri Richards, during their meeting in Orford, N.H., Wednesday, June 13, 2018. Orford resident Tom Thomson is in the foreground at left. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Paul Goundrey quit his position on the Orford, N.H., Selectboard after getting in confrontation with a resident. Goundrey attended the town's selectboard meeting on Wednesday, June 13, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Orford, N.H., resident Tom Thomson listens to a question during a report, Wednesday, June 13, 2018, on a recent meeting he attended with the selectboard and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services concerning storm damage in town. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Saturday, June 16, 2018

On a Friday night in early May, a fierce windstorm knocked out power and brought tree limbs crashing down on roadways in Orford.

The next day, with Archertown Road still closed due to debris and downed lines, Lawrence Hibbard took matters into his own hands.

Hibbard, a logger who lives at the corner of Archertown and Townshed roads, got to work with his chainsaw and tractor, cleaning up the mess that Mother Nature had created overnight.

End of story?

Not by a long shot.

Hibbard, 62, showed up at the next Selectboard meeting to voice his displeasure with the town highway crew. I say crew, but that’s a bit of a misnomer, considering the usual three-man operation was down to one man when the storm hit — and remains so. (More on that later.)

It was pointed out at the meeting that the highway department not only was shorthanded, but also had to wait for the utility company to inspect the damage to make sure there were no live wires to contend with.

Hibbard didn’t buy the explanation. He also remarked that he’d seen Terry Straight, the town’s lone highway worker and chief of Orford’s volunteer fire department, “joy riding” around town on the Saturday morning after the storm.

According to minutes of the May 9 board meeting, “this comment resulted in unkind words to be spoken by (Selectboard member) Paul Goundrey.”

To be more precise, Goundrey let fly with an F-bomb in Hibbard’s direction.

Goundrey, who has served on the three-member board off and on since 1985, then collected his belongings and headed for the door.

“That’s it,” he said, according to the weekly Journal-Opinion, which had a reporter with a tape recorder at the meeting. “I resign. I’ve had it.”

On his way to the door, the Journal-Opinion reported, Goundrey had to pass where Hibbard was seated. Hibbard stood up. A scuffle erupted. Hibbard grabbed Goundrey by the the shirt collar, tearing the cotton shirt and leaving a bruise on Goundrey’s collarbone.

The altercation was “broken up by several other attendees,” indicated the minutes.

Goundrey left, and Hibbard — at the request of Board Chairman John Adams — did as well.

When Goundrey, who retired as Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s grounds supervisor last year, got home that night, he reported the incident to New Hampshire State Police. (He couldn’t call Orford police. The town had been without a police chief — its only officer — since April 2017.)

Last week, Goundrey and Hibbard told me they’ve been interviewed by state police. I called Derek Newcomb, the trooper who is conducting the investigation, but didn’t hear back.

Lebanon District Court didn’t have any records of a pending case last week.

Goundrey turned in his keys to the town offices the day after the encounter, telling me that he didn’t think he could continue being an effective town leader.

“I just kind of snapped,” he acknowledged.

Unfortunately, the political climate in Orford is no longer all that different from Washington, he added.

“Politics have become contentious, even at the local level,” he said.

I also talked with Hibbard.

“People are making more out of this than needs to be,” he said, maintaining that Goundrey was “out of control, but I guess I was a little bit, too.”

Regardless how much importance is attached to that particular incident, it’s safe to say that Orford has had more than its fair share of challenges recently.

Orford, which has roughly 1,200 residents, is a small town where memories are long, tempers run short, and nearly everyone has an opinion about the highway department.

In an interview, Selectboard Chairman Adams said the highway department suffers from having “1,200 observers.” To say that folks in Orford keep close tabs on their road crew is an understatement.

I sat in the audience at the board’s meeting on May 23, listening to residents question the length of the crew’s coffee breaks and why they were allowed to work four 10-hour days, with Fridays off, in the summer. (The answer: After working nights, weekends and holidays during the winter, they deserve a break.)

Some residents — and the Selectboard seems to agree — want a time clock installed in the highway garage so townspeople know when the crew is punching in and out. “They’re getting paid to 3:30, and they’re leaving at 2:50,” complained a resident at the May 23 meeting. “There needs to be some enforcement.”

Harry Osmer, who has lived in town for more than 50 years and serves on the Planning Board, only half-jokingly suggested if folks really want to know what the crew is up to, “We should put up a sign on Main Street that says, ‘John is going home sick today.’

“Then we could stop the bickering.”

I spent a fair amount of time in Orford last week, hoping to gain some insight into the town’s troubles. People were pleasant and willing to talk. Still it’s difficult to pinpoint how Orford slipped off the rails of civility.

Driving along Route 10, Orford has the look of an idyllic small New England town. The lupine and lilacs are in bloom. Grand 19th century “ridge” homes with sprawling front lawns sit above the village. Majestic maples and oaks line the street.

But you don’t have to stray far off the main thoroughfare to find aging mobile homes and yards littered with junk cars.

“There are so many different groups in town,” said Dave Smith, a member of the Selectboard whose family goes back at least four generations in Orford.

Town squabbles are often a case of “this group not liking that group,” he said.

Orford is suffering from a “lack of community,” Goundrey said.

The environment is so toxic that people are discouraged from wanting to serve in public office, he added.

Orford, like almost every Upper Valley town, has a basic divide between natives and newcomers. On top of that, there are other lines in which the town sometimes divides itself: Republicans vs. Democrats; professionals vs. tradespeople and college educated vs. less educated. And it’s not always clear what dynamics are in play when conflict occurs.

Tom Steketee, who served on the Selectboard from about 2008 to 2015, points to changing demographics. Orford has long been considered, thanks largely to Meldrim Thomson Jr., rock-ribbed Republican territory. Thomson put Orford on the state map when he was elected to his first of three terms as governor in 1972. (By 1979, he had come to believe that Ronald Reagan was “too liberal” and made a brief run at the White House.)

Then in 2000, came Rivendell Academy. After forming an interstate school district with Fairlee, West Fairlee and Vershire, the new grade 7-12 school opened in Orford.

“Because Orford had upgraded its school, it perhaps attracted a different demographic,” Steketee said. “More liberal people began moving into town.”

In the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush carried Orford by eight percentage points over Al Gore. In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 18 points.

“The town is very political in national elections,” said Adams who, having lived in town for only 10 years, still considers himself a newcomer by Orford standards. Every four years, Orford stages the “battle of the (lawn) signs,” he said.

Snow was piling up fast last Christmas Day morning when Sheri Clifford called 911 because her husband was having a medical emergency. An ambulance was dispatched from Hanover to transport him to DHMC.

With about eight inches of new snow already on the ground, Orford’s three highway crew members were plowing in separate trucks. Straight radioed a co-worker, asking him to swing through the Cliffords’ driveway to clear a swath for the ambulance to get in and out safely.

After seeing a town truck plowing the Cliffords’ driveway on Indian Pond Road, a resident asked Selectboard member Smith to investigate. The rub apparently being that Sheri Clifford was Orford’s town administrator.

Smith agreed to look into whether Clifford, a town employee for more than a dozen years, was receiving special treatment.

Definitely not, Straight responded. It’s a safety precaution and courtesy that many towns provide.

“You’d think that wouldn’t be a big deal in a small town, but that is how much things have changed here,” Goundrey said.

It’s become such a big deal that the Selectboard has adopted a new policy: Whenever the highway crew plows a private driveway for an ambulance or fire call, it must notify Adams. He then lets other board members know.

How’s that for micromanaging?

In May, Clifford announced her resignation, and is now the Hanover Fire Department’s administrative assistant. Before leaving, she told me about a conversation she’d had with Smith at the town offices concerning the road crew plowing her driveway ahead of the ambulance.

According to Clifford, Smith told her, “It wouldn’t be an issue, if you weren’t so hated in town.”

When I asked Smith about it, he called Clifford’s description a “complete fabrication.” But I got the feeling that he wasn’t disappointed to see Clifford leave her job, which remains unfilled. “She was in a different circle,” he said, referring to the factions that seem to divide Orford.

“I’m not a native,” said Clifford, who grew up in Lebanon.

Smith, who works for a company that salvages old buildings, considers himself “old school.” He doesn’t have a computer at home, preferring to check his Selectboard email once a week at the town offices. “There’s too much dependence on computers,” he said.

He wouldn’t get an argument from Jim McGoff, who runs a salvage yard, five miles outside of the village. McGoff lost to Adams in the March election, but the board appointed him to replace Goundrey.

“I’ve been running a business for 40 years,” McGoff said. “I don’t have a computer or a cellphone. People know where they can find me, and I have an answering machine.”

At 6:30 in the morning, on the last day of April, the three Selectboard members at the time — Adams, Smith and Goundrey — gathered at the town offices for a closed-door meeting.

A half-hour or so later, Adams and Goundrey drove to the town highway garage where road agent Roger Hadlock was beginning his workday. Adams read a letter to Hadlock, informing him of his immediate dismissal. He was given only enough time to pick up his personal tools.

“I had no idea it was going to happen,” said Hadlock, who had been road agent for four years. “Three weeks before they canned me, I’d had my (annual) review. They gave me a pretty good review and a raise.”

I asked Adams, who works in quality management for a Hartford company that designs and manufacturers turbomachines, why Hadlock was abruptly fired. Had something happened in the three weeks since his performance review?

No, Adams said. Hadlock, whose wife, Deborah, is Orford town clerk, was simply “not doing all aspects of the job that he was required to do.”

During his review, Hadlock said, the board brought up that his computer skills needed improving. He didn’t disagree. He was under the impression that he’d get some training but hadn’t.

The crew’s third member was fired at the same time as Hadlock, the Journal-Opinion reported. The crew member, out with a work-related injury, was notified by mail, Hadlock said.

In the six weeks since Hadlock’s firing, two people have applied for the road agent position, but neither were qualified, Adams said at last week’s board meeting.

“Not many people around here know how to build good dirt roads,” Smith told me earlier.

Hadlock, who earned $22 an hour, suspects the board wouldn’t be disappointed if it can’t find a replacement. It could then hire a private contractor to maintain the town’s more than 30 miles of roads.

“We’ve certainly thought about it,” Adams said. “But the town is not ready for it in my opinion. The town does not change easily.”

A story about Orford community dynamics wouldn’t be complete without bringing up Tom Thomson, the 72-year-old son of the late governor. Thomson and his wife, Sheila, are among the town’s largest landowners. Together, they own 1,800 acres, according to town records.

Thomson is a highly-regarded tree farmer known statewide as a good steward of his family’s lands. He serves on several state boards, including the current use advisory board.

He’s a regular at Orford Selectboard meetings, including the infamous session marred by the altercation that state police are now investigating.

From that night and on, Thomson has sided with Hibbard, whom he believes deserved at least a board thank-you for cleaning up after the windstorm. After Goundrey’s outburst, Thomson called for Adams to “reprimand” him.

“I’ve been to thousands of meetings in my lifetime, but I’ve never witnessed anything like it,” Thomson said.

Before last week’s meeting, Thomson took a seat in the front row. Later, he joined board members at their table to give an update on a project he’s been leading. He recently arranged for a water expert with the state’s Department of Environmental Services to examine flooding and erosion trouble spots in town streams.

“This is my hometown,” Thomson said. “I try to do what I can to help.”

During my chats with townspeople, a resident described Thomson as Orford’s “man behind the curtain.” With McGoff’s appointment, his influence in town matters has only increased, other residents say. Two people referred to McGoff and Smith as his puppets.

Not surprisingly, McGoff and Smith took exception to the characterization. Both said that Thomson is a positive force in town.

“Tom being a Thomson has a lot of good connections in Concord,” Smith said. “He knows a lot about the workings of the state.”

Does he hold sway over a majority of the Selectboard? Does he run the town from behind the scenes?

When I asked, Thomson chuckled. “Sounds like fake news to me,” he said, before leaving the town offices in his pickup with a Trump sticker on the back.

For all its troubles, Orford is showing signs of stability.

Since the “infamous meeting,” as Adams called it, Orford’s “silent majority” is taking more of an interest in town government, he said. While the highway crew still has two vacancies and the search for an administrative assistant continues, the town has a police chief for the first time in 14 months. Jason Bachus, a former Fairlee officer, was sworn in last week.

During my travels, I caught up with Hibbard in his driveway one evening. We talked for quite a while. I asked him about the Trump “Make America Great Again” banner that he’d tacked to a shed. It faces his neighbor’s house directly across the road. He put up the banner after his neighbors stuck a bunch of Hillary Clinton signs on their lawn during the 2016 campaign, he said.

A while back, his neighbors asked if he’d take down the Trump banner. They were hosting a family wedding, and I think it’s fair to see they didn’t care for the optics.

Hibbard told his neighbors something to the effect that the banner would remain up until the day he died. In the next breath, however, he mentioned that he had mowed the large field next to his house. They were welcome to use his property for parking for their wedding guests.

They took Hibbard up on his offer.

That’s Orford in a nutshell, I’ve heard more than once. Residents can disagree about national and town politics to the point that it gets downright ugly.

But most people haven’t forgotten what it means to be neighbors.

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