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Jim Kenyon: Thetford town managers have a short shelf life

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

Valley News Columnist
Published: 8/29/2020 9:54:06 PM
Modified: 8/29/2020 9:54:04 PM

The burg of Thetford — or as it attracts more and more tony newcomers, North Norwich — is burning through town managers at a pace that even its moneyed neighbor to the south would have trouble keeping up with.

For years, Norwich has been chewing up and spitting out the guys (no women have held the job) charged with running the town’s daily operations. Current Town Manager Herb Durfee, who barely survived an attempted ouster last winter, is Norwich’s third chief administrator in the last six years alone.

Thetford (my proposal for the North Norwich name change must have been lost in the mail) made the switch to a town manager form of government only last year, but it’s already in the market for TM No. 3.

Serena Bemis-Goodall, a Maine transplant, lasted five months before quitting in January. “I knew when I arrived to no office, no cellphone and no computer that this was going to be an interesting start, but the hostility that I have endured I did not see coming,” she wrote in her parting shot to her bosses. “My position as town manager was set up deliberately to fail, and I hope you have learned a hard lesson in setting up your next candidate.”

Apparently not. Her successor, Guy Scaife, recently announced that he’s bailing after eight months.

I’m not surprised. It was a shotgun marriage from the start. The Selectboard appeared dazed and confused when Bemis-Goodall hightailed it out of town. (Some board members were unhappy with her job performance, but apparently didn’t anticipate her jumping before she was pushed.)

Scaife, who had been fired from his last manager’s gig in Connecticut, was the runner-up the first time around. After reading about Bemis-Goodall’s departure in the paper, Scaife, who owns a home in North Haverhill, offered his services.

Without interviewing anyone else, board members met privately with Scaife on a couple of occasions in January before announcing that he was their man.

The five-person board, which has gained three new members this year, quickly became enamored with Scaife. Even before his six-month interim contract was up, the board offered him a three-year deal in late June that pays $96,000 annually.

It’s now come out that before signing the contract, Scaife informed the board that he was putting his house up for sale and considering a move to Iowa to be closer to family. “My leaving is not a negative toward Thetford, but a personal decision,” Scaife said at Monday’s Zoom board meeting.

Board members Mary Bryant, Nick Clark, Sharon Harkay, Li Shen and Steve Tofel took turns praising Scaife for, among other things, helping the town get a better handle on its finances.

The board failed to mention the havoc he wreaked inside Town Hall during his brief tenure.

Mary Ellen Hayward Parkman, the town’s zoning administrator and engineer, quit in March. Scaife’s “management style is not consistent with the culture that previously existed at the town offices,” Hayward Parkman wrote in her resignation letter. On the town Listserv, she described Scaife as a bully who doesn’t like to be questioned by subordinates.

Then there’s the fiasco with Police Chief Mike Evans, whom Scaife placed on paid administrative leave in June.

Behind closed doors, Scaife was hatching a plan to reduce costs by reducing the hours of Thetford’s two patrol officers. After meeting with Scaife and the board in executive session, Evans talked with his officers about what Scaife was up to.

The next thing Evans knew, he was being ordered to turn in his gun and stay off town property indefinitely. Scaife announced the state was involved in a hush-hush investigation concerning Evans that could take six weeks or more.

Although town officials have remained mum, I suspect Scaife wanted to nail Evans for breaking the cone of silence.

On a Saturday night, six days into his hiatus, Evans received an email from Scaife to let him know that he could return to work on the following Monday.

That was two months ago. Does it mean the investigation has been wrapped up and Evans was cleared of any alleged wrongdoing?

“If that’s the case, no one has told me,” Evans said when I talked with him last week.

I tried contacting Scaife on Friday to talk about his time in Thetford, but I didn’t hear back.

Scaife is expected to leave for Iowa after his house sale closes next month, but he could remain on Thetford’s payroll as a consultant to help with the search for his replacement.

The board is planning yet another top-secret search, which puts the chances of transparency between slim and none. At last Monday’s meeting, Clark, the board’s chairman, said the “public will never see the resumes” or the names of applicants. “We must respect the privacy of the people who are applying for the position,” he said.

Clark falls back on the tired old argument that top candidates will be scared off, if their names become public. They don’t want their employers to find out they’re job hunting.

Too bad.

Last week, I called Charles Merriman, a longtime Vermont attorney who specializes in municipal law. I filled him in on Thetford’s search plans.

“How is the public going to scrutinize the process?” he asked.

Simple: They can’t. That means the public is unlikely to find out if the board gives short shrift to any applicants such as women and people of color.

After going 0-for-2 on searches, North Norwich — whoops, I mean Thetford — should consider a more transparent approach that welcomes public scrutiny.

But I don’t see that happening. Vermont’s feeble public records and open meetings laws make it easy to keep taxpayers in the dark.

No matter the name of your town.

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




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