BELLOWS FALLS -- A public hearing, a grassroots campaign to elect new trustees and a mediation process has gotten Célina Houlné rehired as the Rockingham Free Public Library director eight months after she was controversially fired from the position.
The library's board of trustees voted 6-2 on Tuesday to ratify the terms of an agreement with Houlné and soon will negotiate with her an "evergreen" contract, or one that continues unchanged after its date of expiration. According to the terms sheet made public after the meeting, the contract will expire on June 30, 2016, and can end on only three conditions -- mutual agreement, termination for a just reason, or non-renewal, though a notice of the latter must be provided by Dec. 31, 2015.
"I can't wait to get back to work," Houlné told reporters after the meeting adjourned. She mentioned she expects the contract will be finalized within a couple of weeks.
The terms sheet states the Property And Casualty Intermunicipal Fund (PACIF) of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, Rockingham's insurance provider, will pay Houlné $35,000 and will cover the full cost of the mediation process, which took place in late April. Rockingham Town Attorney Stephen Ankuda told the Reformer the mediator that was used charges $180 an hour and the mediation included 12 hours of discussion and a conference beforehand. However, each side will bear the costs of their own attorney fees.
Once the evergreen contract is finalized, Houlné will also receive an annual salary of $42,993.60 -- which Ankuda said is the same salary Houlné was receiving when she was terminated on Sept. 18, 2013.
Houlné was axed from her position by a 5-3 vote of the library trustees and her supporters claimed that was the culmination of a lengthy attempt to get rid of her. The termination was the result of an evaluation of her performance. The decision outraged many members of the public, some of whom felt there was an ulterior motive. Then-Chairwoman Janice Mitchell-Love and then-Vice Chairwoman Deborah Wright joined Trustees Hope Brissette, Laura Senes and Paige Pietrzak in the vote to relieve Houlné of her duties, while Trustees Ray Massucco, Carolyn Frisa and Pat Fowler voted against termination. A new board was elected in March and Mitchell-Love and Brissette -- the only two remaining members who opted to fire Houlné -- counted as the only "no" votes on the motion to ratify the agreement with Houlné. Wright was defeated in her re-election bid, Senes did not run for another term and Pietrzak resigned from the board last month.
"It's been a long year," Houlné said Tuesday, adding that she feels this lengthy chapter has finally ended. She also said she does not hold any grudges. "Speaking for myself, I am dedicated to this job, I am dedicated to this library, to this staff and this great community. The people in this town love their library."
Attempts to reach Mitchell-Love were unsuccessful Wednesday.
Houlné, who was originally hired in July 2008, was granted her obligatory public hearing within a month of her termination. She publicly stated the trustees' Corrective Action Plan Committee seemed to set up a reason to fire her. She said the evaluation of her performance was "incredibly one-sided and fundamentally inaccurate" and she expressed her unhappiness over never being allowed to respond to it. The terminated director also addressed what she called misconceptions and misrepresentations.
She told trustees the rumors that once circulated about her -- including one that she had an improper relationship with a board member and another that she secretly gave herself a pay raise -- were false. Regarding the supposed inappropriate spike in pay, she said all staff members got a 3 percent raise that was built into the library's operating budget. She said all staff raises must be, and were, approved by a full board of trustees.
"In fact, my actions are completely consistent with past practice and it's how increases have been given every year," she said.
Joel Love, Mitchell-Love's husband and a known critic of Houlné, stood up at Tuesday's meeting and urged the trustees not to rehire her. He listed various reasons why Houlné's termination was justified.
"She was ... found, in her reviews, to be insubordinate and that fact was backed up by numerous instances in writing," he said in the meeting room next to the library's youth section. "She can't demonstrate with facts and evidence that she achieved goals set for her for two years in a row. The employees gathered all of her achievements over her tenure in her 25-page response. She fell short of achieving the goals for those two years.
"If any one of you in business were to achieve less than 20 percent of your goals," he told the trustees, "you'd most likely be terminated. You certainly wouldn't be given raises or those sorts of things. And, as businesspeople, you know that."
Love also said there is no basis to believe any suggested controls put into place upon Houlné's rehiring would be effective.
The board opted not to overturn their decision following Houlné's public hearing, with each trustee keeping their original vote, though Massucco, Frisa and Fowler were joined by Elayne Clift, a staunch Houlné supporter who was named the replacement for Trustee David Buckley, who was unable to attend the meeting at which Houlné was fired. The failure of the trustees to reverse their decision led Houlné to sue the trustees and prompted a massive grassroots campaign to elect a unified slate of candidates that consisted of Massucco, Carol Blackwood, Doreen Aldrich and David Gould. All four were elected to the trustee board in March and Gould, who bested in a headto- head contest, was later named chairman. Each member of the unified slate -- as well as Frisa and Fowler -- voted Tuesday to rehire Houlné.
The rehired director said Tuesday's vote came at a perfect time, as today marks the beginning of a three-day grand opening of the library following a $3 million renovation.
According to Youth Services Librarian Sam Maskell, the celebration will begin at 6 p.m., with a presentation of Alan Fowler's photographs chronicling the library's renovation. Following the display, preservationist and photographer Bill Hosley will present "More Than Books: Libraries, Community, and Historic Preservation," a slideshow and discussion about 200 years of American Library service at 7 p.m. Maskell said Hosley will talk about the role libraries play in their communities.
May 9 will include a free 7 p.m. screening of the "The Book Thief," a movie about a young German girl who takes books the Nazis plan to burn and shares them with a Jewish refugee hiding in her foster parents' home. The library's Teen Advisory Council plans to host a "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" event at 4:30. Live music and art, photograph and historical collections displays will be featured at 10 a.m. on May 10 and the ribboncutting will take place at noon, with celebratory cake, door prizes and speeches from community leaders. That day will also feature a special storytime at 11 a.m., face-painting, Lego building, and Mother's Day craft activities.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-2542311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.