Boards criticized by residents over manager turnover

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BELLOWS FALLS — Some Rockingham residents urged the Rockingham Select Board and Bellows Falls Village Board of Trustees to do some soul-searching over the constant turnover in the municipal manager's position.

At a joint meeting of the two boards Tuesday evening, three residents said they were very concerned about the revolving door in the manager's position, and said it gives the community a bad reputation and would make finding a new manager difficult.

Last week, the two boards agreed not to renew Manager Wendy Harrison's contract when it expires at the end of June. She was hired in 2018, replacing interim Manager Shane O'Keefe, who in turn replaced Willis "Chip" Stearns.

Stearns replaced Tim Cullenen, who replaced another interim, Francis "Dutch" Walsh, the acting manager after the abrupt departure of Jim Mullen, who left in 2010 after serving for three years. Mullen replaced another interim manager, John Schempf, who had replaced O'Keefe, who also had not been renewed during his first stint with the town.

Stradling, the executive director of the local public access television station, FACTV, went in front of the camera and urged the boards to do something different.

Stradling said maybe the two boards should eliminate the manager's position, and maybe change the form of government. He noted that the turnover in the manager's position had been constant in the last 10 years, and maybe even longer.

"It's frustrating," Stradling told the two boards, some of whom were present in the Lower Theater for the meeting, and others were attending via video-conferencing because of the coronavirus pandemic. "The town deserves better," he said.

Stradling said he was just asking the two boards to think about doing things differently.

"Does the village need a manager? Does the town need a manager?" he said. He said with "a lack of leadership, nothing seems to get done and it costs a lot of money."

Stradling said it was very obvious the town and village don't want to merge their governments, since such a move toward consolidation has been rejected by voters repeatedly.

Village President Deborah Wright said working without a manager had been discussed.

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"It might be worth it," Stradling said.

Another resident, Guy Payne of Saxtons River, suggested the two boards sit down with a mediator or consultant to discuss what is going wrong, before trying to hire another manager.

Payne noted there has been seven managers since 2009, and he said such a high level of turnover created an "unhealthy environment."

"How are you going to recruit with this history?" he asked, saying the town and village leaders have to get to the "root cause of what is leading to this unhealthy environment."

"Do we have different priorities?" he asked. "Do we have the right people on the bus?"

Duane Case, a resident of Bellows Falls, said he was disappointed with what he called the "lack of intelligent oversight" for hiring and rehiring town administrators, pointing to decisions at the Rockingham Free Public Library, the Rockingham public works director, and the manager's position.

Case said that in his experience, all three individuals were "hardworking, dedicated individuals."

Case asked each board member to explain their decision to not rehire Harrison, but he had no takers.

He faulted the two boards for not "having a plan in place" to fill the manager's position.

Rockingham Select Board Chairman Gaetano Putignano, who was running the joint meeting, thanked each person after they spoke but there was no discussion about the points raised by the citizens.

Last week, the two boards voted overwhelmingly to not offer Harrison a new contract. Her current contract expires June 30. The vote was a combined 9-1, with only Rockingham Select Board member Susan Hammond voting against the move.


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