Town clerk airs staff conflict at Hartland Selectboard meeting

By JUSTIN CAMPFIELD

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 03-24-2023 4:30 PM

HARTLAND — In a slow, deliberate voice that at times strained with emotion, Hartland Town Clerk Brian Stroffolino issued a statement at the town’s Selectboard meeting Monday that alleged a toxic municipal workplace and ignited a debate that has some residents calling for the firing of Town Manager David Ormiston.

After setting the stage by reading excerpts from the town’s personnel policy describing prohibited behaviors and outlining subsequent consequences, up to and including termination, Stroffolino said that he had “personally experienced and witnessed abusive, aggressive, disrespectful, threatening, violent, and vulgar behavior on multiple occasions” over the course of his first term as Hartland’s town clerk.

He then admonished the Selectboard for what he perceived to be their inaction.

“Many of these instances have been documented and shared with you, yet they continue,” Stroffolino said, before concluding his remarks by asking, “How is the Selectboard going to proceed?”

When reached by phone on Wednesday, Stroffolino declined to discuss his statement further, saying that his remarks to the Selectboard would be his only public comments on the issue.

While Stroffolino, who was first appointed to the town clerk position in February 2021 and subsequently reelected by residents that May, did not specifically name Ormiston as the target of his ire during his comments to the Selectboard, subsequent interviews with Ormiston and Selectboard Chairman Phil Hobbie made it clear Ormiston was the subject of Stroffolino’s comments.

“I was a little surprised by Brian’s comments,” Ormiston said. “It sounded as if there had been prior conversations between Brian and a member or members of the Selectboard that I wasn’t aware of, but I’m not entirely sure what brought that into the public space.

“I’m a little disappointed it ended up there, but not entirely sure of the history so I can’t comment too much on it. But I’ve been here six years and I think the town has done a lot of good things in the six years I’ve been here, and that includes employees, the Selectboard and myself.”

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Hobbie said the Selectboard has received feedback from staff about instances in which they felt “uncomfortable” during interactions with Ormiston, and added that a job evaluation conducted last year revealed both “positives and liabilities” in his performance.

“I think we’ve made progress and I was excited that as a humanist and a good manager we were giving an employee critical feedback of ‘Hey, keep doing these things and you’ve got to improve here,’ ” he said. Referring to Ormiston’s performance since the evaluation, Hobbie said, “There has been improvement shown.”

The matter might have died down if not for a post on the town’s Listserv that, according to Hobbie, landed “like a grenade.”

In a Tuesday-evening post, Jay Boeri, a longtime resident who has been a member of the town’s Planning Commission for the past 42 years, called for “heads to roll” and criticized the Selectboard’s response to Stroffolino’s statement as lacking. At the conclusion of Stroffolino’s comments on Monday, Hobbie had simply thanked him and then stated, “As people know, we do not have these discussions in public meetings” before moving on to further business.

Boeri, who told the Valley News that he’d had his own unpleasant interactions with Ormiston in the past, also suggested that a recent blow-up between Ormiston and an employee that led to that employee being fired by Ormiston had exacerbated simmering issues between Ormiston and town employees. According to Boeri the firing was rescinded only after a town department head intervened.

Ormiston acknowledged an incident had taken place but disputed that he fired anyone.

“Was there an exchange of opinions between myself and an employee? Sure, but I didn’t fire this employee and at the end of the day that employee is still working and the last I knew, me and the employee were on good terms and had moved on.”

Hobbie called the incident a “slippage” and said that the Selectboard was aware of it and looking into it.

After Boeri’s post, the Hartland Listserv lit up with 30-plus comments about the matter, with many expressing support for Stroffolino, calling for Ormiston’s firing or even floating the idea of recalling Selectboard members if they did not fire Ormiston.

It is not known if the allegations raised by Stroffolino or the resulting public uproar spurred the executive session the Selectboard subsequently scheduled for March 27, but Hobbie did acknowledge that personnel matters will be discussed then.

For his part, Ormiston would not be surprised if he is indeed the topic of the executive session.

“I am aware that they have called a meeting and I think that given the fact that Brian spoke at the last meeting I would think that the board would need to get together to have that discussion,” Ormiston said. “It seems to be a natural reaction for a Selectboard, so I’m not going to read into that, nor do I have any expectations coming out of that meeting.”

Hartland is not alone when it comes to unrest in the town manager’s office. Norwich, Thetford, Woodstock and Hartford are just a few of the Upper Valley towns that in recent years have faced higher-than-normal turnover or public turmoil, and in many cases both, with the position.

“We are in a period of time where it is really hard to be a public figure,” said Hobbie, who at Monday’s Selectboard meeting was re-appointed chairman by his peers. “So much criticism comes your way.”

Justin Campfield can be reached at jhcampfield@gmail.com.

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