Library Spat Over: Complaint tossed against Rockingham Public Library

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BELLOWS FALLS — A Windham Superior Court judge tossed out on Friday a complaint filed against the Rockingham Public Library, its trustees and the town's attorney.

Deborah Wright contended that the library's directors and its trustees violated Vermont's open records and open meetings acts. In addition, Wright contended that Ray Massucco, because of the many hats he wears, including representing both the town of Rockingham and the village of Bellows Falls as well as being the elected town agent and the library trustee, had a conflict of interest.

Wright made multiple records requests to the library director and to its trustees, all of whom directed her to the library's repository, where all public documents are kept. In addition to being directed to the repository, noted Judge Michael R. Kainen, Wright also received the requested documents as paper copies and on a computer disk.

"It is undisputed that the Library fully responded to the Public Records Act request that Ms. Wright made to the Library," wrote Kainen, in his dismissal of Wright's claim.

Wright made the records request of trustees, some of whom responded by directing her to the repository, and others who did not respond at all. Wright claimed that each of the trustees, being "custodians" of the records, were required to supply her with the documents. But, wrote Kainen, a Vermont Supreme Court precedent "cleared up any ambiguity" about who was the custodian of the records. "To the extent that there was a custodian, it was [Library Director Celine] Houlne who dutifully downloaded the requested records first in paper form, then to a disk for Ms. Wright," wrote Kainen. "The undisputed evidence shows that she received the records she requested."

Wright also contended that the trustees violated the open meetings act by holding "a secret pre-meeting" on Sept. 23, 29014, and that the warning for the Sept. 24, 2014, meeting was not properly posted.

However, wrote Kainen, "This is speculation on [Wright's] part. Based on the affidavit of Ms. Houlne, the allegation is baseless."

In addition, Wright claimed the trustees violated open meetings law when, on Aug. 22, 2014, then-Chairman David Gould sent an email to the trustees asking for their thoughts on the differences between the Library's personnel policies and the town's. "There was no suggestion that action be taken by email," wrote Kainen. "This was not a meeting in the classic sense because it was not a gathering of a quorum of members of the public body ... It could be construed as a technical violation if it were a proposal to exchange ideas through email ... even if there were a technical violation, Ms. Wright was not aggrieved by it. It is undisputed that no one responded, and no action was taken, so no one could have been 'aggrieved.' "

Wright's complaint that the board violated open meetings law on Sept. 11 or Sept. 12 by discussing the Aug. 22 email was also dismissed. Kainen found that no action had been taken during that meeting in regard to the email after two trustees reminded Gould "it could not be done as there was no place on the agenda to add items. Gould did not pursue the matter."

Wright's claim that there should have been a meeting on Nov. 5, 2014, to "share information with the board" had no basis in law and was also dismissed, wrote Kainen.

Wright's claim that Massucco violated the state's statute governing conflicts of interest referred to the fact that as the town agent he received an unlawful termination lawsuit from Houlne's attorney in late 2013 and that he failed to share that information with the library's board. Massucco forwarded the complaint to the Vermont League of Cities and Towns for the library's defense counsel. In September 2013, after an evaluation of her job performance, the library board voted 5 to 3 to terminate Houlne's contract. The trustees terminated Houlne in accordance with a section of the Rockingham Free Public Library's Personnel Policy and Procedures Manual that pertains to disciplinary action against library employees.

Her termination followed delays in the library's renovation after Baybutt Construction Corp., which was hired as general contractor for the $2.9 million job, failed to pay subcontractors for work they had performed. Baybutt eventually closed its doors and its owner filed for personal bankruptcy. The town was left to pay an extra $700,000 to finish the project after it learned the architectural firm overseeing the job failed to ensure that Baybutt had secured performance and payment bonds, for which the town had paid Baybutt $23,000. The town received $100,000 from the architectural firm in an out-of-court settlement.

Houlne sued over her termination, received an out-of-court settlement of $35,000 and was rehired as library director. While Massucco "may have received" the summons and complaints regarding Houlne's lawsuit before the other Library Board members were aware of them, noted Kainen, "the board would inevitably become aware of the same material. Ms. Wright does not articulate how wearing the hat as town agent, at the same time donating his time to the Library Board, worked to Mr. Massucco's pecuniary benefit. Nor can the court engage in any speculation as to how Mr. Massucco was profiting from serving as town agent and on the Library Board."

Therefore, noted Kainen, the conflict of interest claim was also dismissed.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.

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