The St. Johnsbury Saga, Part 2: Ongoing power struggle over town manager position

St. Johnsbury is renowned for its historic buildings. Caledonia Superior Court. Wikipedia image

Who runs St. Johnsbury?

In theory, that question should be easy to answer. Decades ago, St. J decided to adopt the town manager form of government. Under Vermont law, that means that within the parameters of decisions made at the annual town meeting and ordinances adopted by the select board, the town manager runs it.

But St. Johnsbury has no town manager. It has not had one since April, when the select board fired Ralph Nelson.

On April 2, two select board members, Bernard Timson and board Chair Jim Rust, walked into Nelson’s office and told him “to go home without delay,” leaving behind his laptop computer containing both personal and town matters.

The next day, Rust called Nelson into a private office and told him a “press release will be issued tomorrow saying the board no longer sees eye to eye with (Nelson).”

At the regularly scheduled select board meeting that evening, the board voted unanimously to fire Nelson “for certain actions performed by Mr. Nelson that were directly against the will of the Board and were misrepresented by Mr. Nelson to the Board.”

The firing took place in public. The rest of the preceding information comes from a document filed by Nelson’s lawyers in his lawsuit in Caledonia County Superior Court seeking to get his job back, a suit alleging that Nelson “was fired from his job without cause, without notice and without opportunity to be heard by an impartial adjudicator.”

Public life in St. Johnsbury has been consumed by two questions – two mysteries, really: When would the board find a new manager? And why was Ralph Nelson fired?

According to Nelson’s court filing, he gave town officials the password to his computer the next week. He was given a new password, but it turned out to be “unusable,” and while his computer was returned to him on April 24 by two St. Johnsbury police officers, his personal Internet files had been removed, and a search of the computer indicated that at 6:35 p.m. on April 11 someone had opened the “Nelson Family Budget” file.

Since then public life in St. Johnsbury has been consumed by two questions – two mysteries, really: When would the board find a new manager? And why was Ralph Nelson fired?

Getting rid of people had by then become standard operating procedure for the select board. Since a new, aggressive, majority had re-taken control of the board in March, it had dismissed or prompted the resignations of a host of officials and staff, including longtime town manager Mike Welch.

But that vacancy was quickly filled by an interim manager, Jim Fitzgerald, who was hired with the assistance of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. But he didn’t last long. He quit that July, partly because of a spat with two selectmen who are no longer on the board. Again, the board acted quickly, hiring Nelson as interim manager the next month and elevating him to permanent town manger in September of 2010.

Whether any Vermont town with a town manager form of government has ever before gone without a manager for almost nine months and counting is uncertain. But it is apparently quite rare. Steven Jeffrey, the executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, said he could remember only one other town – Castleton – which had “gone a fair piece … certainly some months” without a manager. Usually, he said, vacancies are filled much more quickly.

McPhee acknowledged that she had been “working all sides against the middle” and she “came to the conclusion that Rust was the power in town now, and then turned on Rust because she thinks he’s lost power.”

In this case, the process has taken so long that some residents are convinced that Rust and his allies are deliberately dragging their feet because they like running the town themselves.

That’s not against the law. Select boards in town manager towns may act as town manager as long as they do it collectively. But it’s not legal for just one or two of them to serve as de facto manager, and in the view of some St. Johnsburyites, board Chair Rust is doing just that. One of those citizens, 45-year-old Ray Labounty, has filed his own lawsuit, asking the court to order the board to appoint an interim manager forthwith.

“I believe town government is being run against state statutes,” said Labounty, a two-time unsuccessful candidate for select board. “The board chair is making a lot of decisions without the knowledge of the rest of the board.”

Labounty and his many allies think that Rust really wanted the job himself, and Rust doesn’t deny it. In his version, some months ago, select board member Rodney Lamotte suggested to Rust that he apply for the town manager’s spot. Rust said he would, but only if all five select board members agreed.

“But we couldn’t get unanimity on the board,” Rust said. During an executive session, his two allies – Lamotte and Timson – said they thought he should be town manager. But Kevin Oddy and Alan Ruggles, who are on the minority side of many a 3-2 vote in open committee meetings, did not. True to his word, Rust dropped plans to become town manager.

But for weeks he refused to say whether he had applied for the job. As recently as the Nov. 26 board meeting, he declined to answer a question from the audience about whether he had submitted an application. Finally, at the Dec. 2 meeting, he revealed that he was not among the 39 applicants the board would consider.

St. Johnsbury Academy is one of the economic engines of the town. Wikipedia image

Then, there is the strange case of the appointment – or the sort-of appointment – of an interim town manager in September. At their regular Sept. 24 meeting, the board voted by the usual 3-2 majority over the objections of a surprised and angry Oddy and Ruggles, to give the job to the special assistant to the town manager, a young (she won’t say how young) woman named Dawn McPhee “upon completion of a contract.”

But more than 90 days later, no contract has emerged, raising doubts about how serious the offer was to begin with. McPhee declined to say whether she was unhappy about the delay, but indicated she still might be receptive to taking the job if the contract were ever proffered.

McPhee was hired by Ralph Nelson, and has earned praise for her energy and efficiency. But she seems not to have been loyal to the man who hired her. In October, the Caledonian-Record newspaper discovered private emails between McPhee and Rust dealing with town business. One of the emails, sent on the night Nelson was fired, concerned plans for governing the town after Nelson’s departure.

Because the newspaper revealed those emails, Nelson’s lawyers were able to subpoena all the emails between Rust and McPhee. On Thursday, Dec. 20, McPhee was deposed as part of Nelson’s lawsuit against the selectmen, and according to Nelson, who was present, McPhee acknowledged that she had been “working all sides against the middle” admitting “she had told people she was loyal to me until she came to the conclusion that Rust was the power in town now, and then turned on Rust because she thinks he’s lost power.”

McPhee could not be reached to comment on Nelson’s account.

Meanwhile, the mystery of just why Nelson was fired persists. This was not a 3-2 vote. It was unanimous. In fact, the motion to dismiss Nelson was made by Kevin Oddy, the favored selectman among the anti-Rust town “establishment.” But like the other selectmen, Oddy will not go into detail, saying the litigation precludes him from discussing the matter. Rust acknowledged that selectmen were unhappy about cost overruns for refurbishing the Pomerleau building, the old railroad depot now home to town offices, and also about Nelson’s treatment of the town staff. But he, too, cites the court case as the reason he can’t go into much detail.

Behind the mystery of Nelson’s firing, though, are two more: Why was he hired? And what was he doing in St. Johnsbury to begin with?

Jon Margolis

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