Trustees accuse municipal manager of abusing power
BELLOWS FALLS -- The municipal manager has fired back at the Rockingham Free Public Library trustee chairwoman, who says the manager abused his power while overseeing the renovation of the newly reopened facility at 65 Westminster St.
Willis D. "Chip" Stearns II replied to an e-mail in which Chairwoman Janice Mitchell-Love claims Stearns overstepped his authority by managing the library's interim directors after Célina Houlné was terminated from the position in September. Mitchell-Love also suggests the library's board of trustees has not been kept adequately updated on the renovation project and has learned second-hand about important aspects of it.
Stearns apologized for any confusion but said assisting the interim library directors should not be perceived as managing them.
"I am sorry again, the Municipal Manager does not work for the RFPL Trustees, though I have been answering questions/attending meetings as requested by RFPL Trustees and staff," Stearns wrote in his reply. "My intentions continue to be for cooperation with all requests to best of my abilities."
He also said he never abused his authority, as the library is owned by the town and governance of the library was taken over by the Rockingham Selectboard after general contractor Baybutt Construction failed to uphold its end of its contract when it ran into financial problems.
Rockingham Selectboard Chairman Tom MacPhee defended Stearns and said he never overstepped his authority.
"The library is owned by the town. The day-to-day operations of the library are handled by the library trustees," he told the Reformer. "But we had to take over the construction when things went south.
"We would never be anywhere near where we are today if it wasn't for Chip," he continued. "He's been trying to turn it back over to the trustees but there has been no direction from the library trustees that I'm aware of."
MacPhee also said going over budget was probably inevitable because of the issue with Baybutt, which had been hired by the Selectboard but had its contract terminated after not paying its subcontractors for work already done. MacPhee said items were dropped from the initial wishlist in order to save money. Stearns previously told the Reformer custom-made metal shelving is still needed to make the renovations complete, and MacPhee defended the decision to get new shelves, saying it would have cost nearly as much to reinstall the older, less attractive shelving.
Houlné, who was fired in September following allegations of misconduct from the trustees, also said Stearns always worked very well with library staff and never crossed any sort of line.
"He was a really good listener and he was very responsive," she said. "We didn't know what would happen with Baybutt. He had to figure out a way to save (money) but that doesn't mean that you don't still run into unforeseen problems."
She also said it is crazy to suggest Stearns tries to boss around library staff or town employees.
Mitchell-Love had also been disappointed the Rockingham Highway Department was used on the project without that information being given to the trustees. She said she was shocked to hear Stearns tell the Rockingham Selectboard on Tuesday that he had authorized 381 hours of highway department labor to assist library staff, which she says will add to the renovation project's overrun, which Stearns said has reached $151,734.73
"I was also shocked to hear that you have exceeded your original deficit estimate by over 300 percent -- and counting! I am sure that the taxpayers will want a detailed and accurate accounting of this. Unfortunately, you will be reporting next Wednesday in the joint Selectboard/Library Trustees meeting on monies already spent that you did not correctly forecast," she wrote, referring to the meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. in the Rockingham Town Hall Lower Theatre. "Perhaps this would not have happened if you had kept the Library Trustees in the loop; we had, among other cost-saving measures, volunteers lined up to help move."
She told the Reformer she is simply trying to protect town taxpayers, who will have to foot the bill for the overrun.
MacPhee said things still needed to be done at the library and Stearns was using some of town employees to do them.
Stearns, in his reply, took responsibility for his use of the highway staff and said the department's workers have not been expensed against the renovation, though that may happen in the future. He also said it was disheartening to feel such ungratefulness toward the workers and volunteers who helped get the library reopened on Friday, Nov. 1.
For her part, Mitchell-Love said she is dismayed over what she perceived as a lack of intention to return the governance of the library to the trustees and over having no control of the accumulation of bills.
"This is my job and I am trying to do right by the taxpayers," she said. "The deficit is three times what it was supposed to be."
The library trustees have a meeting scheduled for 4:30 p.m. in the library's meeting room today.
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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