There seemed to be no end to the controversy surrounding the Rockingham Free Public Library this past year, and the animosity it has generated between the Library Board of Trustees, the Selectboard, the Friends of the Library and the citizens in town.
It all started when Baybutt Construction Corp., which had been hired as the general contractor for the $2.9 million library renovation, ran into financial problems. The Keene, N.H., -based company stopped paying its subcontractors, who subsequently refused to continue their jobs.
The library project was not the only casualty of Baybutt's financial woes. The state office building in Brattleboro, to name one example, was also being renovated by Baybutt. What was unique about the Rockingham library, however, is that there was no performance bond secured for this project to act as a type of back-up insurance policy so the subcontractors could get paid.
The question of why there was no performance bond and who is responsible for that oversight still has not been adequately addressed. We think there should be some official accounting of how this was allowed to happen -- not to assign blame or admonish those responsible, but to learn from the experience and make sure it doesn't happen again.
Regardless, the project eventually got back on track with a new general contractor and completion is slated for later this month. Unfortunately, the animosity that started brewing earlier this year has not abated; if anything it's been allowed to fester and get worse.
There was a great deal of public outcry when the trustees voted in May to temporarily close the facility and relocate the library's services to the community space of a former bank at 41 The Square. The trustees said the temporary move was essential for safety and accessibility reasons and to keep the costs of the renovation down.
However, opponents to the closure believe it was unnecessary and some felt there was an ulterior motive behind the decision. Then, just when you think hostilities couldn't get any worse, the Selectboard voted to oppose the trustees' decision. The Selectboard also intervened when a seat on the library board became vacant and ignored the trustees' recommendation in appointing someone else to fill that seat.
The acrimonious atmosphere is bound to get even worse following Wednesday's vote by the trustees to fire Library Director Celina Houlne. The outrage over this decision was immediate, with some people accusing the trustees of having a hidden agenda and making Houlne the scapegoat for the Baybutt fiasco.
Elayne Clift, a Friend of the Rockingham Library, former library trustee and supporter of Houlne, said the trustees' 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. 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."
Trustee Chairwoman Janice Mitchell-Love denies having any ax to grind with Houlne and said the vote was the result of a fact-based evaluation conducted over several months. Unfortunately, neither she nor any other member of the library board is providing any specifics of the case, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters.
Houlne also declined to comment, but her attorney, Richard Bowen, 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." If that happens, then the details of what led to Houlne's firing are bound to come out in court. While we believe airing out all these grievances surrounding the library might finally help the community to heal and move forward, doing it in a court of law could be a lengthy and expensive process.
Perhaps a better way to go would be to find a neutral, third party mediator, examiner or auditor (someone with no vested interest in the town or the library) to review all of the events and decisions involving the library over the past year, from the Baybutt predicament all the way up to Houlne's firing.
For those who question the cost of such an endeavor, it would be a lot cheaper than going to court.