BELLOWS FALLS -- The director fired by the Rockingham Free Public Library trustees has filed a lawsuit with Windham Superior Court to contest her termination.
Célina Houlné's attorney, Richard Bowen, told the Reformer he believes the trustees violated Vermont's Open Meeting Law, various bylaws and their own procedures manual during what he said was a relentless crusade to relieve his client of her duties. Bowen said he is fighting to win monetary damages, and possible reinstatement, for his client. Trustee Vice Chairwoman Deborah Wright mentioned at Tuesday's trustees meeting that a lawsuit could result only in monetary damages, not reinstatement, but other trustees suggested that may not be true.
Houlné was let go as the library director by the facility's board of trustees on Wednesday, Sept. 19, and the termination sent shockwaves and outrage throughout much of the community. Many members of the public insisted there was a vendetta against Houlné, but Library Trustee Chairwoman Janice Mitchell-Love and others have maintained there was no ulterior motive for the firing, which Mitchell-Love said was based on an evaluation by the trustees' personnel committee.
Mitchell-Love, Wright and trustees Hope Brissette, Paige Pietrzak and Laura Senes voted to get rid of Houlné, while Carolyn Frisa, Pat Fowler and Ray Massucco voted against the motion. Trustee David Buckley was unable to attend that meeting and has since been replaced by Elayne Clift, a staunch Houlné supporter.
Bowen said the trustees committed a wrong that must be righted.
"There were countless violations throughout time they were planning the termination. And because of the violations, there must be a remedy," he told the Reformer on Friday. "Had those violations not happened, the termination would not have happened. The violations controlled the information that got to Célina and to the public."
He stressed that the trustees are being sued as a board, not as individuals. He said defendants typically have 20 days to respond to a filed lawsuit but the trustees will be given additional time, and he expects an answer within 40 to 45 days. He said, however, more time can be requested.
Mitchell-Love said the trustees will be assigned a lawyer by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns -- Rockingham's insurance provider. She said anyone, including Houlné, has the right to sue but, otherwise, had nothing to say regarding the lawsuit.
"I have no comment. ... All of the trustees have been told to have no comment and the staff has been told to have no comment," she said in a voicemail left with the Reformer, adding that Rockingham Town Attorney Stephen Ankuda could speak for the board. According to Ankuda, he has received a copy of the complaint, though it has not yet been served. He said it has been sent to the VLCT, and he is requesting a lawyer for the trustees and for the VLCT to pay any damages if the case goes in Houlné's favor.
Bowen claims Mitchell-Love repeatedly violated the state's open meeting law and the library's bylaws. In the lawsuit, he says Mitchell-Love failed to legally notify Houlné, other trustees and the public of the time and location of many personnel committee meetings. He also claims plans to terminate Houlné were discussed at a meeting not legally noticed by Mitchell-Love, who he said also instructed trustees not to hold committee meetings with more than four trustees in attendance to discuss library business.
Bowen also told the Reformer that public comment was not allowed on the day Houlné was fired, and the board asked members of the Bellows Falls Police Department to clear the room.
"But, in my opinion, (certain trustees) didn't care how many times they had to violate open meeting law in order to meet their goal of sacking the library director," Bowen said. "I believe that Jan Mitchell-Love's intent in violating open meeting law time and time again was to reduce any criticisms that could be made of her and to hide what (the trustees) were doing as well."
Bowen said Houlné believes she was discharged due to false accusations, a false performance review and a hostile work environment created by Mitchell-Love and Wright.
During a portion of an obligatory public hearing to defend herself, Houlné addressed what she called misconceptions, misrepresentations and rumors. She said the evaluation by the trustees' personnel committee was "incredibly one-sided and fundamentally inaccurate." She also told trustees the rumors about her -- including one that she had an improper relationship with a board member and another that she secretly gave herself a pay raise -- are false. In regards to a supposed inappropriate hike in pay, she said all staff members got a 3 percent raise that was built into the library's operating budget. She said all staff raises must be, and were, approved by a full board of trustees.
Bowen told the Reformer that, according to bylaws, the secretary for the library trustees is required to keep a written record of the board's meetings and have the minutes available for examination by the trustees, who must read and approve/correct them. Senes has often acted as the trustees' secretary, and though Bowen said there is nothing wrong with that, he claims Mitchell-Love required the minutes to be provided to her first "in order to sanitize them" before any other trustees or the members of the public could review them. Bowen said proper procedure is for the library director to first receive draft minutes.
Ankuda told the Reformer he will have "a very little role" in the lawsuit, though he will work to minimize its cost to the library.