Library at center of controversy in 2013
BELLOWS FALLS -- The saga of the Rockingham Free Public Library reads like a soap opera.
A seemingly never-ending river of insults, condemnation and accusations of deceit have plagued the village since the financial woes of the general contractor tasked with the renovation of the library started a yearlong headache for those with a vest interest in it. The town terminated its contract with Baybutt Construction Corp. after the project was halted because subcontractors hired by Baybutt refused to continue their jobs, insisting they had not been paid for work already done. A new general contractor search was conducted, which was followed by controversial library trustee decisions, the termination of Municipal Manager Tim Cullenen, public protests and the firing of Library Director Célina Houlné.
After 40 minutes in executive session, the Rockingham Selectboard voted to issue a notice of default and terminate its contract with Baybutt on Thursday, Jan. 10 -- one day after the Keene, N.H.-based company lost a contract with the state of Vermont for similar offenses. The Selectboard unanimously decided to authorize Chairman Tom MacPhee to sign the letter, which was faxed to Baybutt that night. Selectboard members at the time also said the corporation, under oath, falsely stated all appropriate amounts were paid to subcontractors that issued certificates for payment. Baybutt eventually went out of business.
A number of liens were filed in the Rockingham town land records office by the subcontractors, also known as subs, and vendors who refused to return to the job until they were financially compensated. Baybutt, the general contractor, however, did not take out a performance bond or a payment bond, which act as insurance contracts of sorts. Rockingham Town Attorney Stephen Ankuda previously told the Reformer a performance bond was a project requirement from the town. Baybutt submitted a statement, which said the business was entitled to be paid for percentages of the project completed and that it had a $21,000 performance bond, which it did not. Ankuda said he has been told Baybutt had the necessary bonds and is not sure how everything managed to happen the way it did. In November, however, he said all lawsuits filed with the town had been settled amicably.
Frederick L. Baybutt, the corporation's owner, filed for personal bankruptcy in February.
Engelberth Construction Inc., the company hired to "button up" the library and make sure it was "reasonably weathertight" after Baybutt's contract was terminated, was hired to finish where Baybutt had left off. The Rockingham Selectboard took over the project following the fiasco with Baybutt. Municipal Manager Willis D. "Chip" Stearns II said at a joint meeting of the Selectboard and Bellows Falls Village Board of Trustees in November that Engelberth was paid $489,774.42 and that he wouldn't hesitate to hire them again.
Stearns, who had the whole problem dropped onto his lap after replacing Cullenen, the municipal manager terminated via a vote of no confidence from both boards in April, said the $2.9 million project cost the town $3,042,245.15, leaving a deficit of $153,089.60. He said the project stayed as close to budget as was possible considering all the issues that arose.
Immediately after the fall-out with Baybutt, MacPhee told the Reformer there would have to be some sort of investigation into how the whole mess happened. On Dec. 30, he said Ankuda has been looking into the matter since the contract was terminated.
The spring of 2013 was filled with accusations from the public that the library trustees were on a power trip and violating proper procedures. Concerned citizens, who sometimes felt they were being ignored or silenced, often clashed with certain trustees over decisions made and the way meetings were run. Vermont Assistant Attorney General William B. Reynolds recently sent a letter to Trustee Chairwoman Janice Mitchell-Love to inform her she had violated the state's Open Meeting Laws, though there is no reason to believe she did so intentionally. Reynolds drafted the letter in response to complaints the Attorney General's Office had received from Library Trustees Elayne Clift and Carolyn Frisa and former Trustee Deb Wetzel.
According to Reynolds, Clift alleged that Mitchell-Love instructed board committee meetings to be held without warning the public or the full board and told the personnel board to limit attendance to a maximum of four trustees in order to remain below the board's quorum of five. Clift also claimed the trustees improperly passed a motion to close the library at a special meeting on Wednesday, May 1.
Reynolds also told Mitchell-Love there were numerous instances where she indicated committee meetings are not open to the public and should not be warned. He quoted an e-mail from Mitchell-Love to Houlné and Trustee Chairwoman Deborah Wright as stating, "Personnel Committee meetings are not public meetings -- ever -- so they should not be posted ... At no time can five or more trustees -- which is a quorum -- attend a committee meeting without it being warned as a trustees meeting. If five or more trustees show up for a meeting, they have to either leave or the committee meeting must be postponed and/or canceled because it is an illegal meeting."
Reynolds wrote Vermont's Open Meeting Law states "(a)ll meetings of a public body are declared to be open to the public at all times." He also quoted an e-mail in which Mitchell-Love appoints Policy Committee A and Policy Committee B and says the two unassigned trustees could attend the meetings of one of those committees to avoid butting "up against the quorum issue." Reynolds told Mitchell-Love her understanding of the Open Meeting Law was incorrect.
"If a quorum of the members of one of these committees gathers to discuss its business or take action, the meeting must be warned, minutes must be taken, the public must have an opportunity to express its opinions, and the standards for entering into executive session must be met," he wrote. "Creating committees with less than five trustees did not avoid a violation of the Open Meeting Law as there was still a ‘meeting' of a ‘public body' when those committees met."
In an interview with the Reformer, Mitchell-Love acknowledged a clear violation of the law that occurred in the spring when the trustees improperly passed a motion to close the library by a 4-2 vote. A minimum of five votes is needed for a motion to pass and Mitchell-Love said a special emergency meeting was scheduled immediately to rectify the mistake once it was realized. The trustees then voted 5-1 to close the library -- a move that sparked controversy in the village and prompted protests outside the library. The library's services were temporarily moved to a vacant space in The Square.
Wetzel's complaint -- which was filed along with her husband, Adam -- was in regards to Mitchell-Love denying Steve Geller, Houlné's husband, the right to speak at a public meeting because he and Houlné are not residents of Rockingham. Reynolds wrote that the public must be "given a reasonable opportunity to express its opinion on matters considered by the public body during the meeting as long as order is maintained" and Vermont state statutes do not limit that right to residents of the town where the public body resides.
Mitchell-Love told the Reformer she realized silencing Geller was a violation of the Open Meeting Law soon after doing it and, therefore, never did it again.
Frisa's complaint had to do with Mitchell-Love allegedly warning a special meeting improperly and discussing two topics in executive session when they should have been discussed in public. According to Reynolds' letter, Vermont's Open Meeting Law states "[t]he time, place and purpose of a special meeting subject to this section shall be publicly announced at least 24 hours before the meeting" and all municipal bodies must post notices of special meetings in or near the municipal clerk's office as well as in at least two other public places in the municipality at least 24 hours before the meeting is slated to begin.
The two topics in question concerned Frisa's eligibility to serve as a trustee (because she is not a Rockingham resident) and whether a comment posted on Facebook, a social networking website, was acceptable trustee behavior. Reynolds, in his letter, said the Open Meeting Law allows a public body to consider "the appointment, employment or evaluation of a public officer or employee" in executive session and there are no sufficient facts to determine if the discussions violated the law. He added, though, that Mitchell-Love cured any possible violation by agreeing to discuss the topics in open session.
Mitchell-Love told the Reformer these complaints are from a few individuals unhappy with the governance of the library and what happened to Houlné, who was fired in September. Mitchell-Love specifically mentioned Clift's complaints, which she said were misleading.
Houlné's termination was perhaps the most controversial move the trustees made in 2013, as the decision has sharply divided Rockingham and resulted in two public hearings. Houlné was fired at a trustees meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 18. Mitchell-Love and Wright joined members Hope Brissette, Paige Pietrzak and Laura Senes in voting to fire her while Pat Fowler, Ray Massucco and Frisa voted against the motion. Trustee David Buckley could not attend the meeting and has since been replaced by Elayne Clift.
Mitchell-Love said no trustees are allowed to talk about Houlné's termination, as it is a personnel matter and the privacy of library employees must be protected, but said it was the result of a fact-based evaluation conducted over several months. An obligatory public hearing was held over the course of two consecutive Thursdays and Houlné's attorney, Richard Bowen, questioned several people -- including certain library trustees -- about his client's firing. Massucco made a motion to reverse the trustees' decision but each trustee kept their stance and there were not enough votes to overturn the termination. Clift, who was not on the board when Houlné was fired, voted to reverse the decision.
The trustees later opted at a meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 10, not to send the Vermont Department of Labor an appeal of the benefits Houlné is receiving. Senes, Clift, Frisa, Massucco and Fowler opposed the motion while Brissette, who made the motion, and Wright voted in favor of it. Mitchell-Love did not vote and Pietrzak was not present. It has been suggested that, because some library trustees are not seeking re-election in March, that the board might have enough votes to reinstate Houlné as the director after Town Meeting.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.
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