Harrison's contract not renewed

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BELLOWS FALLS — The Rockingham Select Board and Bellows Falls Village Trustees voted overwhelmingly Tuesday night not to renew the contract of Municipal Manager Wendy Harrison.

Harrison's contract expires on June 30, which would mark the end of her second year on the job.

The two boards met behind closed doors for more than an hour, during which some members attended in person and others participated remotely via video-conferencing because of the coronavirus pandemic in the state and country.

The vote to not renew Harrison's two-year contract was 9-1, with only Rockingham Select Board member Susan Hammond voting against the motion.

No reason was given by the board members for the decision, but it's been no secret that the two boards and Harrison had different views of key issues — including staffing at the Bellows Falls Village Police Department and whether the town needed a public works director.

"It's important you have a manager you want," Harrison told the board. "It's not surprising and I respect it," she said, adding that she had been on the verge of resigning before the coronavirus emergency. Harrison is being paid $85,000 a year.

Voting for non-renewal were Village President Deborah Wright and Gaetano Putignano, chairman of the Rockingham Select Board. Others against renewal were Rockingham Select Board members Peter Golec, Stefan Golec and Ben Masure. The village trustees were unanimous in voting against her contract being renewed: James McAuliffe, Jonathan Wright, Stefan Golec and Gary Lique joined Deborah Wright.

Peter Golec, Hammond and McAuliffe participated remotely, while the others were in person, although they were spaced far apart from each other in the town hall's Lower Theater.

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In voting for the non-renewal, the two boards specified that they would be sending a letter to Harrison in the near future.

Harrison said she "completely respects" the boards' decision. "I was considering giving notice," she admitted. She said she often found herself "playing a pick-up game," with herself and the two boards "playing by different rules."

Deborah Wright, in an interview Wednesday morning, said the two boards had been discussing Harrison's job performance with her for more than a year.

She said the two boards were frustrated with what she called Harrison's "lying by omission" and that Harrison kept the boards in the dark about many key issues. Last week, several board members said they were surprised to learn by reading in the Reformer about negotiations Harrison and other town administrators had held with the Vermont Labor Relations Board, and the union representing many town and village employees about the board-driven change to health insurance policies.

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Wright said social media was already criticizing the boards for their decision, but she said people don't know the full picture and the struggles the board had with Harrison.

"They don't see the internal functioning," she said.

Putignano couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday morning.

Hammond, the sole vote in support of Harrison, said she thought Harrison was doing a good job "and brought a fresh perspective and new ideas to the town that many residents appreciated.

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"But as with any manager there is always room for improvement," Hammond continued. "Perhaps I have a longer range view than others on the boards. There are always challenges, disagreements and different priorities working with a board, never mind two boards. I think at times the Select Board lost sight of the bigger picture as they focused on areas that were not part of our job to focus on. I believe that there was too much micromanaging happening at times that made a difficult job even more challenging. I wish Wendy well in her next endeavor. I know she will work hard for the town until her departure and will be an asset to what ever comes next for her," Hammond said in an email on Wednesday.

Harrison has her supporters in the town; she was presented with a bouquet of flowers by some town residents at Town Meeting three weeks ago.

Her departure is the latest town hall turmoil, as Rockingham and Bellows Falls have a long history of constant turnover in the joint manager's position. The average tenure has been less than two years, with at least two of the more recent managers either suing the town and village, Tim Cullinen, or getting a settlement to leave during a controversy over the remains of the Bartonsville Covered Bridge, Willis "Chip" Stearns. An interim manager, Shane O'Keefe, did not stay.

Harrison, a native of Florida, is married to Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell. It was her first municipal manager's job. Previously she worked for the Brattleboro Retreat Farm doing communications.

Harrison told the boards after they voted that she had been on the verge of resigning because of differences with the two boards, but that she had decided to stay on because of the global coronavirus pandemic.

She told the boards that the town's response to the coronavirus was occupying all of her time. She said the town and village website, www.rockbf.org, will heavily feature information about how town and village services have changed and what town and village residents should do. The town hall has been closed for about a week, but some employees are still working there, and others remotely.

Wright said Wednesday it was too soon to say who would serve as acting town manager when Harrison leaves.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 556-2147.


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