BELLOWS FALLS -- The Rockingham Public Library Board of Trustees voted Wednesday morning to terminate Library Director Celina Houlne, effective immediately, in a move that could contribute to rising tensions between board members and the public.
Supporters of Houlne have long suspected several board members, who voted 5-3 in favor of termination, of having a hidden agenda to fire the library director, though Trustee Chairwoman Janice Mitchell-Love has publicly stated that is untrue.
Mitchell-Love, Vice Chairwoman Deborah Wright and members Hope Brissette, Paige Pietrzak and Laura Senes voted to fire Houlne while Carolyn Frisa, Pat Fowler and Ray Massucco voted against the motion. Trustee David Buckley could not attend the meeting, which was held on the third floor of Rockingham Town Hall.
Massucco said he voted against termination because there was not sufficient information to persuade him to vote in favor of it.
Mitchell-Love said no trustees are allowed to talk about Houlne's termination, as it is a personnel matter and the privacy of library employees must be protected, but it is the result of a fact-based evaluation conducted over several months. She said the trustees, who are legally represented by attorney Stephen Ankuda, do not have an ax to grind with Houlne.
"Speaking for myself, I really like Celina," Mitchell-Love said. "But we had to make this decision for what is best for the library and that is the way we approached this."
When the Reformer told her there are many members of the public who believe this termination was due to a vendetta against Houlne, Mitchell-Love said, "I'm sorry they feel that way. They just don't have the information we've got."
"We have facts and have tried to stay away from emotions," she added.
Houlne declined to comment and referred the Reformer to her attorney, Richard Bowen, who said there is a possibility of lawsuits filed against the board of trustees following the gathering of facts. He said several individuals on the board might also be sued "for some egregious actions on their part."
He told the Reformer he understands there was an evaluation -- conducted by Mitchell-Love and one other trustee -- presented to the rest of the board at a meeting on Thursday, Aug. 29. Houlne, he said, was previously allowed to respond to the criticism but was refused documentation when she asked for data on which the evaluation's conclusions were based.
Bowen said he and Houlne attended Wednesday's meeting and he was unhappy with how it was managed. He said neither he nor Houlne were allowed to address the board or even meet in the executive session in which the personnel matter was discussed, public comment was not permitted and the vote for termination was made before members of the public had a chance to sit down after being let back in following the executive session.
"We didn't even know what the motion was," he said, adding that Houlne was stunned by the termination because she had nothing but great job evaluations before this year -- the one that involved the saga involving Baybutt Construction Corp. Baybutt had been hired as the general contractor for the $2.9 million renovation of the library but had its contract terminated by the Rockingham Selectboard when subcontractors hired by the Keene, N.H-based company refused to continue their jobs and insisted Baybutt had not paid them for the work already done. The fiasco delayed the scheduled date of the library's reopening, which Municipal Manager Willis D. "Chip" Stearns II has said he expects to happen by the end of the month.
Bowen said he believes the library trustees bear certain responsibilities for the saga with Baybutt and are using Houlne as a scapegoat.
Bowen said Vermont is an at-will state with respect to employment but said there are state and federal statutes to protect employees from harassment. He said the trustees, with Houlne's termination, have actually violated their own charter.
"There are consequences for terminating someone unlawfully," he said.
The trustees have frequently been at odds with local citizens over the trustees' alleged mistreatment of Houlne and the controversial closure of the library while renovations are finished. The trustees voted in May to temporarily close the facility and the library's services are currently being operated out of the community space of a former bank at 41 The Square. Opponents to the closure believe it was unnecessary and some felt there was an ulterior motive behind the decision.
Elayne Clift -- a Friend of the Rockingham Library, former library trustee and supporter of Houlne -- told the Reformer she is sickened by what the board did on Wednesday.
"I'm pretty upset because this action is uncivil, uncalled-for and it is not substantiated in any credible way if anyone actually looks at the record and is familiar with the corrective action plan," she said. "The people who are doing this are diabolical and have been orchestrating this move for a long time. And they've fabricated allegations against Celina."
Samantha Maskell, the youth services librarian, said the termination is upsetting but everyone is excited to move back into the main facility.
"We have a great staff. We're going to pull together," she said. "We're a tight group and we work really well as a team."
The trustees terminated Houlne in accordance with Section 14, Subsection F-5, of the Rockingham Free Public Library's Personnel Policy and Procedures Manual, which pertains to disciplinary action against library employees. The trustees also voted to offer the job of interim library director to Emily Zervas. Mitchell-Love told the Reformer Zervas had verbally accepted the position for the time being.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.