×

Jim Kenyon: Is the book closing on Thetford’s librarian?

  • Library Director Peter Blodgett works in his office at the Latham Memorial Library in Thetford, Vt., on July 1, 2019. The library's board of trustees have announced they wiant to replace Blodgett, who has been in the position for 33 years, with a new director in the fall. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

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



Valley News Columnist
Saturday, July 06, 2019

In a public meeting that placed him center stage, longtime Thetford town librarian Peter Blodgett sat silently in the same row at the front of the room with his bosses who want him gone.

But there was really no need for Blodgett to say much of anything. Dozens of his supporters — you might even call them fans — made it clear to Latham Memorial Library’s board of trustees that its plan to ax Blodgett after 33 years of service to the town should be immediately shelved.

“Peter is the heart and soul of the library,” said ex-board president Megan O’Dell, who was among 20 library patrons, volunteers and former trustees to voice support for Blodgett. “I hope the board will rethink a new plan.”

The library is a private nonprofit organization, but Thetford taxpayers provide roughly half its annual $100,000 operating budget.

About 75 people packed the Thetford Hill library’s basement conference room Wednesday evening for the trustees’ monthly meeting. To its credit, the board gave everyone who had something to say an opportunity to say it.

But that’s about all the board has done right since the plot to oust the 66-year-old Blodgett was apparently hatched this spring.

Other than a cryptic “announcement” that board President Marla Ianello posted on the Thetford listserv two weeks ago, trustees haven’t said why they want Blodgett to step aside.

In her post, Ianello wrote that trustees were preparing to develop a new “strategic plan,” which requires “rethinking current operations and the relevancy of these for a 21st century library in a small rural town.

“As part of this process, we will be hiring a new librarian in the fall of 2019.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Ianello said trustees couldn’t provide more details because it was a “personnel matter.” As Blodgett’s employer, they “have to protect his rights,” she said.

Nothing I heard at the meeting — or in talks with folks familiar with the board’s handling of the matter — indicates Blodgett’s firing has merit.

Library volunteer Scooter Hathorn said some trustees’ complaints were as petty (my word, not Hathorn’s) as Blodgett keeping a messy office and taking frequent vacations.

I’ve seen his office. It might not spark joy in tidiness guru Marie Kondo, but since when was an unkempt desk a sackable offense? After the meeting, I asked Blodgett about his five weeks of annual vacation. He’d negotiated it with the board in lieu of regular salary increases, he said. According to the library’s most recent IRS filing, Blodgett earned $37,167 for working 30 hours a week in 2017.

There also was talk the board’s dissatisfaction stemmed from Blodgett being “too set in his ways,” Hathorn said.

In his most recent job performance review, which was conducted last fall and which Blodgett only saw this spring after he requested a copy, his main shortcoming was an aversion to computers, he said.

The library has a computer lab for adults and a half-dozen desktops for kids. But the gist I’m getting is that trustees still don’t think the library is “modern enough,” as one resident put it.

Perhaps trustees would be happier if Blodgett added a Starbucks to the reading room where patrons could get a caramel macchiato with their book app.

Alexis Jetter, who teaches in Dartmouth’s English and Creating Writing Department, was among the residents who praised Blodgett for his work with young readers. He’s made the library a “place full of books where kids want to be,” she said.

The board didn’t respond to residents’ comments, which was probably wise. No need to make things worse than they already are.

How did it come to this?

During a closed-door session in March, trustees voted, 6-0, to change librarians. But they didn’t want it to appear as though Blodgett’s exit was their idea.

Blodgett told me that after the March vote, he was asked to submit a letter of resignation. He could pick his departure date — as long as it was in 2019. Blodgett asked for time to think about it. The board agreed.

Three weeks after the secret vote, Ianello informed Diana Kimball-Anderson, one of two trustees who had missed the March 5 meeting, about the decision to seek Blodgett’s resignation.

Kimball-Anderson was so upset that she quit the board. She said she’s received emails and phone calls from residents wanting more information about what had happened.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Kimball-Anderson said she had stayed quiet at Blodgett’s request. “Peter didn’t want to drag the library through the muck,” she said.

When Blodgett still hadn’t handed in his letter of resignation last month, the board took action. Ianello’s announcement on June 24 then set the Thetford listserv ablaze. “The library board has fired Peter?” a resident asked. “They might as well fire Santa Claus!”

It might not be a done deal quite yet, however. At Wednesday’s meeting, Bob McConnaughey, a retired Washington attorney, and Liz Ryan Cole, a Vermont Law School professor, pointed out the library’s bylaws require trustees to be elected. But a couple of years ago —for reasons unclear to me — the Thetford Selectboard started appointing members instead of leaving it up to voters.

By failing to adhere to library bylaws, trustees aren’t “duly constituted” to fire Blodgett, the two lawyers argued.

Trustees were expected to launch a search soon for Blodgett’s replacement, but are now holding off.

Meanwhile, Blodgett was still at work in his office last week. Clutter and all.

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