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Jim Kenyon: Thetford drama pours out, despite efforts to keep it backstage

  • From left, Thetford Selectboard members Mike Pomeroy, Chairman Nick Clark, Li Shen and Doug Stone listen while former selectboard chairman Stuart Rogers reads a letter during a selectboard meeting on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020 in Thetford, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Former Thetford Selectboard chairman Stuart Rogers reads a letter to the selectboard during a meeting on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020 in Thetford, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 1/11/2020 10:19:20 PM
Modified: 1/11/2020 10:18:38 PM

Last Sunday evening while many people were watching the NFL playoffs, the Thetford Selectboard huddled behind closed doors.

Joining the four Selectboard members at Thetford Town Hall was a bespectacled white-haired gentleman toting a leather satchel.

I wasn’t allowed into the executive session, but he was, so before it started I asked board members about their guest. They wouldn’t divulge his name or the reason for his visit. When I asked the man to identify himself, he just smiled.

The five talked for an hour. After the private meeting broke up, I inquired again about the mystery man. Again, I got nowhere.

A public body conducting public business without the public being told what’s going on is not good government.

But it’s often the Vermont way.

In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based government watchdog, gave Vermont an “F” when it comes to public access to information. The nonprofit organization’s assessment, which was part of a national investigation, focused on state government, but Vermont’s lack of transparency extends to the local level.

Vermont has some of the weakest right-to-know and public meeting laws in the country. Local boards often meet privately with impunity. All they’re required to do is to give 24-hour notice of a meeting and claim they need to discuss a “personnel” matter without the public looking over their shoulder.

The transparency bar couldn’t be much lower.

In the first six days of this month, the Thetford Selectboard held four so-called executive sessions, including last Sunday’s. (Another is scheduled for this Sunday.)

The board’s obsession with secrecy has only added to the palace intrigue that has engulfed Town Hall in recent weeks.

On Jan. 3, just before the start of an executive session, Thetford’s first-ever town manager announced her resignation. Serena Bemis-Goodall, who had previously served as the town manager in Corinna, Maine, pop. 2,200, had been on the job for just five months. (In 2018, Thetford residents voted to hire a town manager to oversee day-to-day operations.)

Bemis-Goodall didn’t go quietly.

“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 told the board in her resignation statement. “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.”

Bemis-Goodall’s sudden departure came a week after Selectboard Chairman Stuart Rogers resigned from the five-member board. Since then, Rogers has accused three of his board colleagues — Nick Clark, Mike Pomeroy and Li Shen — of working behind the scenes to oust Bemis-Goodall.

In a statement that he read at Monday’s Selectboard meeting, Rogers said one of his “major reasons” for resigning was because he “refused to be guilty by association.”

The board’s actions could well have “caused irreparable harm to the integrity and reputation of this town,” Rogers stated.

He might be right. After seeing what happened to Bemis-Goodall, Thetford’s next town manager has to wonder about job security. My advice: Rent, don’t buy.

Rogers blamed Clark, Pomeroy and Shen for turning Thetford into “North Norwich.” Thetford still has some catching up to do with its neighbor, however, in town manager-vs.-selectboard drama. By my count, Norwich is on its sixth town manager in 15 years.

Rogers argued his three colleagues had their “minds made up” before starting a review of Bemis-Goodall’s job performance last month.

Clark, who replaced Rogers as chairman, told me that it was nothing of the sort. The board was still working on Bemis-Goodall’s three-month evaluation, which was two months behind schedule when she resigned, Clark said.

Both sides made mistakes.

The board failed to clearly define what Bemis-Goodall would be doing for her starting salary of $72,500 a year.

At the same time, Bemis-Goodall didn’t seem to go out of her way to immerse herself in her new community. She had yet to make the permanent move from Maine, where her son is still in high school, and much of her time was spent ensconced in her office (once she had one).

If she had wanted to get to know Thetford residents, the natural place for her to hang out would have been the town’s recycling center on Saturday mornings. But apparently Bemis-Goodall wasn’t big on meet-and-greet sessions.

There were also rumblings that she didn’t pay attention to details. She was slow in bringing in a contractor to fix a plumbing problem at Town Hall. Not a big deal, but also the kind of thing that doesn’t win friends in the building. (I wanted to talk with Bemis-Goodall last week about her Thetford experience, but I couldn’t reach her.)

Now that Thetford has entered the Monday-morning-quarterbacking stage, the question is: Did Bemis-Goodall jump, or was she pushed?

In an interview last week, Clark acknowledged that Bemis-Goodall was “caught in the crossfire” between board members. For two months, they couldn’t even agree on where her office should be.

Clark said he tried to get the matter settled before Bemis-Goodall arrived in early August, but Rogers wouldn’t place the item on a board agenda. Rogers preferred to wait until Bemis-Goodall started so she could pick an office that best suited her needs.

The board’s inaction fueled turf wars inside Town Hall. Some town employees didn’t want to give up their space to make room for Bemis-Goodall.

“It wasn’t a pleasant working environment,” Clark said, adding that Bemis-Goodall’s difficulties in Thetford weren’t “entirely her fault.”

Meanwhile the board became more and more dysfunctional. Politics had a lot to do with it.

Rogers calls himself an independent, but some of his views are on the conservative side. He supported a Selectboard measure that bans cannabis from being commercially grown or sold in Thetford, if the Legislature makes it legal.

Clark, on the other hand, started a group called Upper Valley Young Liberals and was a Progressive candidate for the Legislature in 2018.

“Stuart has been ignoring me since I got elected,” said Clark, who joined the board in March.

Clark, 31, grew up in Norwich and had only recently became a Thetford voter when he defeated retired firefighter David Goodrich, 319-213, in 2019 Town Meeting balloting.

In his statement last Monday, Rogers accused Clark of being a carpetbagger who has “no intent to stay in Thetford.” Clark told me he’s looking to buy a home in Thetford and expects to run for reelection in March.

Rogers also criticized Pomeroy and Shen for being “driven solely by (their) personal and political agendas.”

When I asked Shen about Rogers’ attack, she replied, “I don’t really understand what he means. I just want to do what I can to help the town.”

Rogers has called for Clark, Pomeroy and Shen to resign. He also wants the board’s remaining member, Doug Stone, to step down. While not working to overthrow Bemis-Goodall, Stone was “guilty simply by association,” Rogers said.

I tried to contact Pomeroy and Stone to get their takes on Rogers’ public comments, but I couldn’t reach them. On Monday, Stone announced that he won’t seek another term at Town Meeting.

I suspect there’s more to Rogers’ own resignation than he’s letting on. For six of his seven years on the board, Rogers served as chairman.

In March, after Town Meeting, the board will pick a chairperson for the next year. Rogers could do the math. If the board’s makeup remained relatively unchanged, his reign was about to end.

“Stuart had the power,” Clark said. “He decided what was going on the agenda and when. He’s upset because we challenged his power.”

Where does Thetford go from here?

I’m not convinced a town manager is needed in a sleepy bedroom community with 2,600 residents. (Sorry, I don’t know how else to describe a town without a bar or restaurant that serves alcohol. On the plus side, it has five post offices.)

Hopefully, the board won’t bring in the Vermont League of Cities and Towns to oversee the search again. After Bemis-Goodall was hired, the League sent the town a bill for $6,100. Considering the outcome, Thetford taxpayers might want to ask for a refund.

I have an idea that could save Thetford a lot of time and money. (And I won’t charge six grand.)

Mary Ellen Parkman is a civil engineer who serves as the town’s public works project manager and zoning administrator.

In a small community, one of a town manager’s prime duties is finding grant money to pay for road improvements. Last year, Parkman secured and managed roughly $400,000 in highway grants while working 20 hours a week. (She spent another eight hours doing zoning work.)

Last week, Parkman asked the board to expand her duties and hours to a full-time position that bumps her annual salary from $46,000 to $68,600.

Before beginning the discussion, the board asked Parkman if she wanted to talk behind closed doors. Being a personnel matter, the board had easy cover under the state’s public meeting law.

To her credit, Parkman, who has worked for the town since 2012, declined the offer. She was comfortable talking about her proposal in public.

How’s that for transparency? The kind, in fact, you’d like to see in a town manager.

Parkman, 43, applied for the job that eventually went to Bemis-Goodall, but she didn’t make the final cut. She was told that she finished third.

When we talked last week, Parkman said she was still interested in the town manager’s position. She didn’t think rolling her highway department duties into the job would be much of a problem. (The town would probably have to hire a part-time zoning administrator, though.)

After Bemis-Goodall quit with no notice, Parkman offered to help out, but the board seems bent on going in a different — and more costly — direction.

Which brings me back to the mystery guest at last Sunday’s closed-door board meeting.

The Saturday before, Guy Scaife, who was the runner-up to Bemis-Goodall, emailed the board. He had read about its predicament in that morning’s Valley News and said that he was still available.

After reading his email, which is public record, I’m certain that Scaife, who is a former city manager in Meriden, Conn, and now lives in North Haverhill, was the mystery guest. (Scaife didn’t return messages I left on his voicemail or email.)

All signs point to the board hiring Scaife — at least on a temporary basis — as early as this Sunday.

So why the secrecy?

In his email, Scaife said he worked for a private company and wanted to keep his discussions with Thetford confidential.

The board agreed to keep everything hush-hush, which was probably good for Scaife.

Just not for faith in local government.

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




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