Politics

Hartford Selectboard member chastises himself for email criticizing town officials

Hartford town hall. Courtesy photo

Editor’s note: This story by Darren Marcy first appeared in the Valley News on Aug. 4.

HARTFORD — The Selectboard, at a special meeting Tuesday, took the unusual act of issuing an apology and publicly chastising one of its own members for making public an email last month that criticized the town manager — with that board member leading the charge.

The Selectboard statement apologizes to the town manager, director of human resources and other staff “for the pain that the release of (the) email has caused them personally and professionally.”

The apology stems from communications written by Rocket, a Selectboard member who uses a single legal name, on July 4. In the email, Rocket listed “troubling rumors” he said he’d heard. He said he set out to talk to people about those concerns, including an hourslong conversation with Town Manager Tracy Yarlott-Davis.

He wrote that as a result of these conversations, “I have lost faith in Tracy’s current work as our Town Manager.”

The email also details concerns with the human resources director, as well as other current and former employees.

Rocket apologized Tuesday for the incident, and he made the motion himself to accept the board’s statement. He said the email was intended to be a private communication with fellow board members to contribute to ongoing discussions about Yarlott-Davis. He later released it to a community member who asked for it, he said, after Yarlott-Davis had denied the request, citing personnel matters.

In apologizing, the Selectboard said the release of the email wasn’t just Rocket’s mistake, but the full board’s.

“We recognize that the release of the email was a breakdown in our process and that this represents a failure on the part of the entire Selectboard,” the statement reads. “The Selectboard has many new members, and we would benefit from training on the role and responsibilities of being a Board member, the Public Records and Open Meeting laws and other issues, so that we can best serve the Town of Hartford. The release of this email has also damaged the trust between Selectboard members, the Town staff, and our community. The Selectboard must now work to regain that trust. We can do better and are committed to doing so.”

Rocket was elected to the Selectboard in March, his first time holding public office.

The email was obtained by Hartford resident Heidi Duto, who is an administrator for the Facebook group “What’s Up Hartford ???” where she posts meeting agendas and encourages public participation in the town government.

Lately, Duto has been filing freedom of information requests to obtain private emails between board members and town employees and has started publishing some of those exchanges.

It was the appearance of Rocket’s email on the Facebook page on July 20 that eventually led to Tuesday’s meeting.

On July 12, Yarlott-Davis responded to Duto’s July 11 Freedom of Information Act request, supplying the requested emails with one exception, the email from Rocket to the Selectboard.

“I have withheld an email from Rocket to other Selectboard members because it is exempt from disclosure … as it contains personal documents relating to employees,” Yarlott-Davis wrote.

Yarlott-Davis told Duto the denial could be appealed to the Selectboard.

Duto, however, sent a request directly to Rocket for the email. Rocket, at Tuesday’s meeting, said he misunderstood and thought she would eventually get the email anyway, so he sent it to her in the interest of transparency.

He told the board Tuesday night he now understands there is a process he subverted in doing so, which was his first mistake. Rocket apologized multiple times during the meeting and said it was important to accept responsibility for his mistakes. In addition to making the motion to accept the letter chastising him, he voted for it, along with five of his fellow board members.

“When I wrote the email, I intended it to be private to the Selectboard,” Rocket said. “My intention was to make it part of the discussion.”

Selectboard Chairman Michael Hoyt, who said he wrote the majority of the statement, spoke passionately yet said the board action was not an official admonishment of Rocket, but a letter about a breakdown of the process.

“This was an absolute failure of the process,” Hoyt said. “I cannot stress enough how damaging it is. We can’t just sweep this under the rug.”

But support for the board’s statement was not unanimous.

Member Lannie Collins, after saying he wouldn’t be part of the board’s action, stood up and left before the board statement could be read into the record. After reading the statement, the board approved it, 6-0, with Collins absent.

Before he left the meeting, Collins argued the actions of the board were not serving the best interest of the town and the statement was a waste of time and resources.

He said he wasn’t sure if the board statement was intended to admonish Rocket or be a letter of support for the town manager, and added he didn’t think he agreed with either.

“I will not accept my name being attached to this document,” Collins said. “Many of the statements that are asserted in the email we, on the board, all know to be true,” Collins said. “We need to address and find solutions for these issues.”

Collins asked why, if the allegations were not true, would anybody’s feelings be hurt?

That drew a rebuke from board members Kim Souza, Ally Tufenkjian and Dan Fraser.

“There’s a digital footprint that leaves a professional scar when there’s false information about someone’s professional behavior,” Souza said. “It’s damaging and it’s harmful.”

Tufenkjian expressed her support for Souza’s comment. As she said there might be staff listening and wondering how the board would respond, Yarlott-Davis, who attended remotely due to testing positive for Covid-19, was nodding her head yes on the video screen.

“If we’re trying to build trust, I’m afraid we’re setting ourselves back again,” Tufenkjian said.

Comments from the two dozen attendees in person and online were mixed. Some thanked the Selectboard for taking the issue seriously but many chastised the board for going after Rocket after ignoring what they characterized as previous board member transgressions that were ignored.

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