Hartford Selectboard seeks more collaborative approach after tiff at meeting

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-20-2023 10:12 AM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Hartford Selectboard members called for more collaboration, communication and civility after a recent organizational meeting gave way to criticism of colleagues, disputes over committee positions and frustrations over a controversial vote.

A Selectboard meeting on March 9 to appoint new board officials and a committee liaison led to friction between board members.

Resident Michelle Boleski, speaking in a public comment, urged the board members “to grow up.”

In one example, a lack of familiarity with rules and procedures resulted in board member Lannie Collins losing a bid for board vice chairman because Collins was denied an opportunity to vote.

Board members were also taken aback when Collins publicly critiqued other board members without solicitation, which members found disrespectful and inappropriate.

Speaking to the vote, Collins said that the board’s procedures “felt like a deliberate attempt” to deny him the officer role.

“My vote was completely ignored,” Collins said. “My (belief) is it was because (my appointment) was basically not wanted” by other board members.

Collins, who won reelection last week to a two-year term, has frequently clashed with board members over local government’s role in promoting social diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI. Since joining the board in 2020, Collins has opposed board-supported initiatives, including cultural diversity training for employees and elected officials and the Hartford “welcoming” ordinance, which provides protection to undocumented people by limiting the information that town employees may share with federal immigration and customs agencies.

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“It’s not that I feel social issues aren’t important,” Collins told the Valley News in a phone interview. “But my emphasis has always been on the core issues that concern many members of the town,” such as finances and department operations.

“It’s like the old adage: You don’t get a paint job for your car when the brakes are failing,” Collins said.

Selectboard Chairman Michael Hoyt said the mishandling of the vice chairman vote was not intentional.

When conducting the roll call vote, Hoyt skipped over Collins without asking his intent; Hoyt later said he’d assumed that Collins would abstain from voting on his own appointment. The vote ended in a 3-3 tie, short of a majority to pass.

Collins attempted to express his vote, but the board moved to a new nomination.

“I don’t recall seeing a member (vote for oneself) before and wasn’t sure it was allowed,” Hoyt told the Valley News, who had abstained from his own vote for chairman.

“I assumed he would also abstain from voting,” Hoyt said. “That assumption was incorrect, and I should have asked him whether he was going to abstain before calling for the votes of the other members.”

The board later held a re-vote. But on the second vote, board member Ally Tufenkjian — who previously voted for Collins — changed her vote to a nay, which resulted in a failure to pass, 4 votes to 3.

Tufenkjian told the Valley News that she initially felt appointing Collins to vice chairman would help provide more balance of viewpoints on the board. But she still worried about Collins’ “ability to work collaboratively and collegially” with other members.

She said she switched her opinion between the two votes when Collins criticized board member Dan Fraser, saying that he does not participate enough in board discussions and has “disrespected the public on numerous occasions.”

Earlier in the meeting Collins similarly criticized Hoyt’s performance as chairman, saying he “struggles sometimes with empathy (and with) being able to interact with a broader base of people.”

“Collaborating effectively means being able to offer feedback constructively and respectfully to support each other in doing our best work,” Tufenkjian said.

“We need to model that for our community, and I don’t believe Lannie has demonstrated that. I hope he continues to grow those skills so that he might be ready to step into a leadership role on the board in the future.”

Collins said he felt his feedback was appropriate and warranted.

“I think it has to be recognized,” he explained. “I think we grow as individuals from recognizing our weaknesses.”

But Collins said he regrets a provoking comment made toward Fraser and that he intends to apologize.

At the meeting’s closure, Collins asked about the new seating arrangements. “I want to sit next to Dan (Fraser). I want to rub elbows with him,” he said jokingly.

Board member Mary Erdei remarked that it was “unprofessional” to make light of his earlier comments about Fraser.

“Let’s just get on with the business of the town, rather than finding ways to attack,” Erdei said.

Hoyt said it is appropriate for board members to share constructive criticism with colleagues provided it does not “turn personal.”

“I would like the board to work through interpersonal conflicts directly with other members or through the chair,” he said.

Several board members, including Collins, said the board would benefit from mediation or group training to help the group to work more collaboratively and communicatively.

Board Clerk Kim Souza, who is seeking reappointment as the board training coordinator, said she hopes to organize new trainings, which would not be based on DEI subjects like racial inequality but issues identified in community surveys regarding the town culture or government.

“When the Selectboard is not able to be cohesive or collaborative, it is a poor model (for the community as a whole),” Souza said.

Souza also advocates for the board having a stronger knowledge of town rules and procedures and by developing guidelines for appointing Selectboard members to committees, which also led to arguments last week.

“Written guidelines would have given us a framework to lean on instead of us dissolving into an emotional debate,” Souza said.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or at 603-727-3216.

CORRECTION: At a Hartford Selectboard meeting on March 9, board member Lann ie Collins said, “I want to sit next to Dan (Fraser). I want to rub elbows with him.” Collins was quoted incorrectly in an earlier version of this story.

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