Rockingham Free Public Library, town take account of construction expenses

Town attorney offers advice about public records

BELLOWS FALLS — The addition and renovation to the Rockingham Free Public Library has ended up $153,089.60 over budget.

While Municipal Manager Willis “Chip” Stearns III told The Commons this week that the “when, how much, from where, 'cash' is coming is not a known set of information,” he added that “the RFPL trustees have this amount of cash held in accounts under their control already.”

The total library fund shows a healthy balance of $451,624, more than enough to cover the cost overrun.

In the meantime, the expenses “will be reported as contributing to a deficit in the library fund during the current year,” Stearns said. “The process to chase reimbursement from a third party has to run its course.”

An accounting of renovation payout to contractors dominated a Nov. 13 joint meeting of the Selectboard and the library's Board of Trustees, though no questions were raised about where the funds would come from to cover the project.

And no questions were raised by any of the trustees regarding when the renovation project would be turned over to the RFPL trustees, as per concerns raised in a Nov. 5-7 email exchange among board chair Jan Mitchell-Love, vice-chair Deb Wright, and Stearns.

Nor was the matter discussed as to what entity will reimburse the water and highway-department personnel for staff time helping with various renovation-related projects, including the move back into the library at Stearns' request.

“This would likely be a recommendation from me to the Selectboard and their decision,” Stearns later told The Commons. “I will be determining if a recommendation would be made by Dec. 31.”

Praise for municipal manager

During the meeting, Selectboard chair Thom MacPhee publicly praised the work of Stearns.

MacPhee gave a brief overview of the events following the debacle of Baybutt - the general contractor for the library renovation project that declared bankruptcy in midstream - and the town's subsequent supervision of the project since December 2012.

He said this project would not have moved forward and the library “would not be open today” without the dedication and hard work of Stearns, who took over the supervision of the project on April 17 when he stepped in as municipal manager.

“The community owes him a big thank-you,” MacPhee said.

MacPhee commended the municipal manager for his steady commitment to managing contractors at the library daily, in addition to his regular duties - an extra task that included weekend work.

Stearns gave a thorough accounting of where the money had been spent on the renovation project, including defending his decision to replace some original metal shelving with $62,016.11 worth of new shelving that can be moved as needed.

He said he made the decision on his own when he realized that the old shelving would have obscured the newly refinished walls and restoration of the interior molding and lighting.

Stearns said that given the age of the shelving, the cost to replace it represented a “good deal” for the project.

During the public comment and questions that followed presentation, Cathy Bergmann asked, “Where did the [$20,000] for the bonding of the project go?”

Both MacPhee and Stearns said that Baybutt was paid for the bonding through the company's first submission/pay request.

“The cash went to Baybutt,” Stearns later told The Commons. “The project paid the contractor, who did not purchase the item that they showed on the requisition.”

Another resident, Carol Blackwood, said she was concerned that taxpayer funds were now going to be used to settle a personnel issue - the dismissal of former Library Director Célina Houlné - and wanted it known that she was against taxpayer funds being used for this purpose.

Records requests

When several trustees brought up questions about how they should comply with public records requests from press and public at their Oct. 22 meeting, the board agreed to ask town attorney Steve Ankuda to address the board and answer questions at their next meeting.

At the Trustees' Nov. 12 meeting, Ankuda addressed board members who expressed confusion about what constitutes a public document.

When Mitchell-Love complained about the time it was taking board members to process such requests, Arnold Clift responded that the increase in public records requests came as a result of the “loss of public trust in the Trustees.”

Clift's wife Elayne sits on the Board of Trustees, having replaced David Buckley, who quit in protest following Houlné's dismissal in August.

Mitchell-Love asked Ankuda about what would happen if all documents or emails were not submitted upon request.

Trustee Pat Fowler noted that such a case could be brought to light if an email from a board member from whom documents had been requested emerges in the community, yet wasn't included as part of the official response to the public records request.

Ankuda told Mitchell-Love that a “hefty fine” of $500 could be levied on that responsible person.

The attorney also recommended that a dedicated email account be set up on the system at the library to which all communication could be copied if sent via email, from which public records requests could be culled. He called that measure “being honest, not dishonest.”

According to Ankuda, an email between two trustees talking about library business is not public because it does not constitute a discussion among a quorum.

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