On February 8, 2023

Hartland board member criticized for overstepping

By Curt Peterson

Hartland’s five-member Select Board aired some internal issues at Monday evening’s meeting, Feb. 6. Town Manager David Ormiston described a phone call he received from Ann Gammell, chief engineer of the highway division at the Vermont Agency of Transportation. 

According to Ormiston,  Gammell made it clear the AOT would like to have “one individual” representing the town of Hartland, “to avoid confusion.” She said one of the selectmen, subsequently identified as James Rielly, had been communicating directly with the agency, asking engineering and funding questions about three bridges in town.

As town manager, board chair Phil Hobbie said, Ormiston has sole authority to act as individual liaison between Hartland and the AOT.

“Very simply put,” Hobbie explained to the Mountain Times, “the Select Board works on policies, while the town manager executes those policies, is the operational head of the town, and has management oversight of town employees.”

This relationship was clarified during an executive session meeting in December between legal counsel and the Select Board, at which Rielly was present, Hobbie said.

Ormiston said the AOT has been “very kind to Hartland” and upsetting the system that is working well and as it should “jeopardizes that relationship.” Nothing Rielly discovered during his interaction is information we haven’t discussed at Select Board meetings.

Rielly’s interference was called embarrassing to the town.

Rielly protested, saying he was just asking questions and doing research, which he felt he has the right to do.

Selectwoman Mary O’Brien spoke up: “If you want to get information, you go to the town manager, not to the AOT individually.”

Later, Ormiston said Rielly has never asked him individually about the bridges or anything else. Had he done so, he would share all the confirmed information he has. 

Rielly said he would talk to Ms. Gammell individually and resolve the situation.

Hobbie looked at Rielly and said, “I’ve read your correspondence with the AOT, Jim. You are not having that conversation!”

The next morning Jim Rielly wrote, “I reached out to (Ann Gammell) today to apologize for any confusion I may have caused. She called me personally to say that here was no confusion and there were no concerns at her end.”

Although Rielly said he was acting as an individual and not as a selectman, his original email to Gammell began, “I’m on the Selectboard in Hartland.”

Two of the bridges Rielly researched are wooden covered bridges over the Ottauquechee River in North Hartland. The posted weight limit is 10,000 pounds, which, residents on the far side point out, excludes fuel trucks, garbage trucks, ambulances and firefighting apparatus, among other vehicles. Ormiston was told by a state engineer the highest weight limit the town might legitimately allow would be 12,000 pounds – too low for emergency and other heavy vehicles.

Ormiston said, “The town arranged a detour by which heavier units can access their homes, but they don’t like the detour, and continue to ask for a higher weight limit on the bridges.”

There was one incident when miscommunication required first responders to cut their way through a gate to help a resident in dire need of assistance, Ormiston said, but the fire and rescue squads have eliminated that problem.

“In fact,” he said, “Mill Street residents have the fastest response time in town, due to their proximity to Hartford.”

Ormiston said the bridges are in queue to receive attention and funding from state and/or federal sources, which is attributable to his efforts. The 10,000 pound weight limit has been in effect for many decades, and nothing could be done at this point to raise the limit sufficiently without incurring liability for the town.

“This has been discussed multiple times during public meetings at which Jim was present,” he said. “The only option is to wait to hear from the state.”

Jim Rielly said Mill Street residents claim they can’t get answers from Ormiston.

“They don’t feel they are getting clear and timely communication,” Rielly said in an email. “I listen to the concerns of residents and try to help. At times this may require that I do external research.”

In an email he characterized Hobbie’s “calling out” of his actions, “a premeditated attempt to impugn my integrity.” He signed the email, “Disrupter in Chief,” a title often attributed to former president Donald Trump.

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