DOMENIC POLI, Brattleboro Reformer
BELLOWS FALLS -- The attorney representing Célina Houlné, the terminated director of the Rockingham Free Public Library, has filed a motion for injunction to prohibit the library’s trustees from hiring a replacement until his client’s pending lawsuit is resolved.
According to Richard Bowen’s motion filed Thursday in Vermont Superior Court: Civil Division, Houlné requests that the court schedule a hearing and issue the trustees a notice to demand they delay their process of hiring a new library director. Houlné was controversially fired in September via a 5-3 vote of the trustees following an evaluation of her performance and has filed a lawsuit against the trustees to contest her termination.
Last month, the board of trustees named a search committee to weed out the weaker candidates that applied for the vacant director job. The committee is made up of Trustee Chairwoman Janice Mitchell-Love, Library Trustees Laura Senes and Pat Fowler, Bellows Falls Middle School Principal Heidi Lucas-Moccia, Barbara Ternes of Parks Place, the Rev. Torin Brooks of Faith Christian Church, residents David Gould and Cathy Bergmann, Amy Howlett of the Vermont Department of Libraries and Youth Services Librarian Sam Maskell. Mitchell-Love announced at a committee meeting last week that the list of 19 viable candidates has been dwindled down to five and committee members discussed various potential interview questions and procedures.
But according to Bowen’s motion, Houlné was dismissed by a bare majority of the trustees and the same people denied her appeal in October.
"Célina’s complaint alleges ... that in discharging her, the Trustees violated Vermont’s Open Meeting Law by manipulating a Corrective Action Plan and made false accusations to justify their decision," he wrote.
Bowen also mentions the Vermont Attorney General’s Office investigated several of the trustees’ practices under Mitchell-Love and informed the chairwoman she violated the state’s Open Meeting Law several times during 2013.
"Those violations prevented Célina from performing her job, prevented her from defending herself against false accusations, and interfered with public participation in key decisions about the library, including her wrongful termination," he wrote.
Mitchell-Love had no comment on Bowen’s motion. Town Attorney Stephen Ankuda said he had not heard of the motion, though a lawyer appointed by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns -- Rockingham’s insurance provider -- will likely represent the trustees throughout the course of the lawsuit.
Bowen also states in his motion that Houlné will lose the chance to regain her livelihood and reputation "that the Trustees deprived her of" if the vacant position is filled while the lawsuit is pending. He claims an injunction would not negatively affect the library, as it would continue to be operated by members of its staff while Houlné’s case is being considered. He also said his client "is likely to succeed on the merits of her claim."
Library Trustee Elayne Clift has regularly suggested halting the search for a replacement until the lawsuit has been resolved. She believes it is unfair to both Houlné and all applicants to move forward with the process until the matter is finished. Other trustees, such as Mitchell-Love and Vice Chairwoman Deborah Wright, have said Houlné’s lawsuit can result in monetary damages only.
Mitchell-Love, Wright, Senes, Hope Brissette and Paige Pietrzak voted to terminate Houlné while Fowler, Ray Massucco and Carolyn Frisa voted not to. Trustee David Buckley, who has since been replaced by Elayne Clift, was unable to attend that meeting. Clift voted at Houlné’s public hearing to keep the library director, making the vote 5-4 in favor of upholding the termination.
The board could receive a major facelift next month, when voters cast their ballots at Town Meeting. Wright is seeking re-election while Massucco joins Gould, Doreen Aldrich and Carol Blackwood as a unified slate of candidates that urges residents to vote for "Trustees you can trust." The slate is determined to swing the board by winning trio of three-year seats and the two-year spot up for grabs.