ROCKINGHAM — A open letter read at Tuesday night's joint meeting of the Rockingham Select Board and Bellows Falls Village Board of Trustees raised eyebrows around the room and caused some sparks to fly.
The letter, read aloud by Zoning/Planning Administrator Charles "Chuck" Wise, was in support of the Town Manager Willis "Chip" Stearns II. It was signed by 13 of the town's department heads, which led Select Board Chairman Lamont Barnett to state his disapproval of such a letter.
"If any one of these employees felt uncomfortable with you asking them to sign this, that would be considered harassment," said Barnett. "Second, if this was done on town time, that is misuse of your time."
Stearns said the letter of support stemmed from the March 1 organizational meeting with the Select Board. Without inviting Stearns, the board went into to executive session to discuss "personnel where premature general knowledge could place the municipality at a substantial disadvantage."
When the Select Board came out of executive session at the March 1 meeting, Barnett made the motion to defund the Development Office until further notice and instructed the Stearns to secure the town's interests, up to and including taking keys and passwords. The motion was seconded by Stefan Golec.
In a phone interview on March 30, Barnett said he has wanted to make changes in the development office because he feels it has not been good for the community as the town "spends a lot of money in that department."
Stearns spoke up at the March 1 meeting and said the Select Board had violated executive session and it "appeared to be a desire of board members to remove Francis Walsh from accessing Town Hall," and that in doing so, it would cause backlash. He said consequences included jeopardizing the $90,000 investment in the Robertson Paper building, and any projects undertaken by the Development Office would cease immediately.
"Stearns stated that in his opinion this Board has overstepped its bounds and any consequences will be the Boards," stated the special meeting minutes from March 1.
Barnett called for a vote on the motion. Barnett voted in favor of the motion. Peter Golec voted no. No other board members voted and the motion failed.
According to Stearns, on March 2 Barnett and Select Board Vice Chairman Joshua Hearne came into his office and told Stearns that he was "not a team player," given his comments from the organizational meeting. He told them they could arrange to get three votes on each board and could "get rid of him."
In a phone interview, Barnet said that he and Hearne said "they hoped that he would be a team player."
Stearns said he told his employees about the Select Board organizational meeting and then the conversation with Barnett and Hearne for one reason.
"They (the department heads) need to know where this present board is acting, and based on the board's reaction to the letter in support of me tonight, I still don't think there's a clear and concise, 'Let's work with the manager.' There's 'We're the board, we're going to do what we want.' It's unfortunate," said Stearns.
Barnett said he feels the Select Board and the Town Manager are a team, they have to work as a team and that it was not the content of the open letter that bothered him, but rather how it had circulated.
"I would not be in support as potentially violating our harassment policy, as to the content of letter, (Stearns) has a job here, if we weren't supporting him, he wouldn't have a job here," said Barnett.
At Tuesday's meeting, Wise responded to Barnett's concerns and said the letter did not circulate on town time and that each individual was asked and not coerced to sign. He also answered Select Board member Ann DiBernardo's question about the intent of the letter.
"I can't speak for all of the department heads, but for someone that has been watching the hearing and Select Board meetings, and realizing there is transition afoot, we wanted to make sure that our feelings were felt during this period."
The wording in the letter gave examples of what kind of an asset Stearns is to the town and encouraged Select Board members and Trustees to "continue working closely with the Municipal Manager ..."
Barnett had problems with it also because he felt that town resources were used to create it, signifying that it was printed on town letterhead. He also noted that some department heads were not listed on the signed letter such as fire chiefs or the other two listers. One of the department heads spoke up at the Tuesday joint meeting.
"If that letter hadn't been written, I would have written it," said Francis "Dutch" Walsh, the Development Director. "I would have done it at home and I would have done it on letter head. And I was asked to sign this; I didn't have to sign it, but I did and no one was coerced."
Barnett argued that by simply asking an employee to sign a letter concerning an immediate supervisor can be intimidating. Overall, he feels it was a bad idea and that everyone should move on from it.
"I would rather put this nonsense behind us, because it's not productive," said Barnett.
In other meeting business:
• At the beginning of the joint meeting a townsperson felt the Select Board and Trustees were "rude" because they announced they were going into executive session at the beginning of the meeting without certainty of how long the discussion might take. When Trustees and Select Board members came back into session, they approved a motion to sign the Reservations of Rights document, which according to Stearns was regarding a lawsuit filed by the prior town manager.
• After some discussion a vote passed to allow a two-month trial to allow the Bellows Falls Farmers Market to be hosted at Hetty Green Park. The boards urged that the Farmers Market Board will need to get the message out to the community about these changes and where people can and cannot park for the event. Parking was the greatest concern of the boards and some members of the community, but one of the co-founders of the Bellows Falls Farmers Market, Charlie Hunter, voiced his support.
"The Waypoint Center seemed like an ideal location, and I've watched over years, watched it struggle," said Hunter. "I would urge the board to support this reboot."
• Other meeting business involved an update on the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance from Mary Helen Hawthorne. She sent reminders about deadlines and discussed some new ideas such as placing a kiosk map in town that will help direct locals and tourists of where they are located and what is surrounding them in the downtown area.
The Trustees and Select Board also voted to enter into an emergency response, Mutual Aid agreement with the town of Charleston as presented.
The Select Board also made a motion to table a social media policy because it had too much "gray area."
Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 275.