by Amanda Milkovits
Reporter for Fosters Daily Democrat, writing an historical recap for this website
It started with an all-day private meeting on Dec. 1, 1995, as the five members of the Board of Selectmen vehemently debated whether to demand a resignation from Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg. Behind closed doors, the selectmen voted 3-2 to have Rieseberg resign -- and take a $125,000 check with him when he left. If he hadn't resigned, several selectmen said they were prepared to fire him.
They also decided to place a gag order on themselves preventing them from ever discussing what took place during the meeting. If any of the selectmen talked, the town would be subject to a $100,000 fine -- payable to Rieseberg. A few days later, Rieseberg accepted a new job managing the town of Hartford, Vt.
Instead of quietly ending what some believed was a contentious relationship between Rieseberg and town officials, the plan backfired.
The selectmen took sides against each other. Selectmen Arthur Moody, Brian Warburton and Mary-Louise Woolsey stuck by their vote to oust Rieseberg, and Selectmen Thomas Gillick Jr. and Paul Powell, who opposed telling Rieseberg to resign, said the other three acted hastily. The so-called "Rieseberg Affair" cost the town lawsuits, burned the political reputations of all five selectmen involved in the agreement and infuriated Hampton residents when they learned $125,000 was secretly paid to Rieseberg.The controversy also inspired a new state law requiring payments made to public employees who are fired, retiring or resigning must be made public.
In February 1993, Hunter Rieseberg was hired as Hampton's town manager. He left his job as the town manager in Jaffrey to replace Phil Richards, who had been acting town manager since his contract expired at the end of December. Selectmen worked out a $73,000 settlement package with Richards, and Rieseberg came aboard.
Rieseberg came with new ideas to restructure the town manager's position and to take a stronger role in directing town affairs. Some of those ideas made him immediately unpopular with Mrs. Woolsey and Moody, who thought he was trying to usurp selectmen's authority. He recommended holding selectmen's meetings every other week, instead of each week, and streamlining the number of things on their agenda. Some of the items were nit-picky, small things that the manager should handle, Rieseberg said. That would save selectmen's time, and reserve the meetings for larger issues, he said.
All public correspondence to town officials was now opened and placed in a folder for selectmen - and all residents - to review. However, Rieseberg encouraged selectmen to cut the "Citizen's Sounding Board" and the public comments section of the selectmen's meetings. The comments section eventually returned to the end of selectmen's meetings, but the sounding board did not return.
Rieseberg's 34-month term as Hampton's Town Manager was marked with tension between union members, the town's department heads and several selectmen. Some found his manner abrasive, while others praised him for his work on closing the town's landfill and constructing a new transfer station. Powell and Gillick had become friends with Rieseberg, and both said later that he had been a fine manager.
And Mrs. Woolsey, who'd clashed publicly with Rieseberg numerous times, wrote in his July 15, 1994 job evaluation that Rieseberg "does have technical management skills, and is intelligent and skilled at bringing people from the community as resources to assist in project resolution. His leadership was critical to the implementation of the landfill closure and transfer station accomplishment."
However, some people found him inapproachable. In the same document, Mrs. Woolsey wrote that she doubted Rieseberg's committment to Hampton. Rieseberg "has difficulty in dealing with situations where elected officials do not agree with him ... [he is] too quick to take criticisms or differing opinions as personal attacks upon him." The town's unions sent letters to the selectmen questioning Rieseberg's credibility and competence.
His relationship with some selectmen and residents began to erode swiftly. There were rumors of "Fire Hunter" and "Trash Hunter" bumper stickers being produced for firefighters and public works employees. Both selectmen were steamed about Gillick's move to change the seating arrangement when he was elected chairman in 1994. The chairman, vice chairman, Rieseberg and Administrative Assistant Karen Anderson all sat at the head of the table - Moody and Mrs. Woolsey were put out by having to sit at the side. Gillick said later that he didn't intend to slight anyone with the seating arrangement.
In July 1994, Gillick called the board members into a non-public session for Rieseberg's performance review. He told the others that Rieseberg had a job offer from another town, and needed to give an answer by July 10. Gillick, Powell and then-Selectmen Lewis Brown said they didn't want to lose Rieseberg, so they were proposing extending his two-year contract to give him more job security. Mrs. Woolsey said she thought it was a tactic by Rieseberg to force open contract talks seven months before deadline - and that he should leave if he didn't like working for Hampton. They returned to the evaluation process in November, when Rieseberg asked for a four-year contract. No deal, said Moody and Mrs. Woolsey. However, a contract keeping Rieseberg on the job until February 1998 was signed by the three other selectmen. Both Moody and Mrs. Woolsey said they were never told about the contract signing, but Gillick said they were. "That's absurd," Gillick said later. "I sat in Mrs. Woolsey's kitchen and went over the document with her. ... Arthur Moody received copies of it."
Both selectmen accused Rieseberg of mishandling town affairs. One issue in particular divided selectmen and townspeople: trash. At a special Town Meeting on October 1993, a majority of residents voted to set up a transfer station and dispose of trash through a user-fee system called bag-and-tag. Some business people were outraged with the system because it would be extremely costly for them; supporters said it would be a fair way of paying for trash. Free trash pick-up was being funded through property taxes. However, only 10 percent of the tax base is commercial and industrial, and those businesses produce more than half the trash in town.
After the measure passed, Rieseberg worked on getting the transfer station in place. But the bag-and-tag proposal languished for months. Although it was due to start Jan. 1, 1995, the project wasn't ready. Rieseberg told selectmen they should hold off on spending money to buy the bags because he'd heard rumors about a petitioned warrant article to reverse the October 1993 vote. He was right. At the March 1995 Town Meeting, residents voted down bag-and-tag - using a petition submitted by Mrs. Woolsey. When bag-and-tag died, Powell motioned to increase the 1995 budget by $277,000 because the tonnage of waste would increase 67 percent. Moody blamed Rieseberg for the proposal's failure, saying if he had gotten the project started on time, the petition wouldn't have gone through. The proposal was doomed, however: a second attempt to bring it up was killed in the March 1997 deliberative session.
After disagreements with Moody or Mrs. Woolsey, Rieseberg would send them letters, asking them to talk things over. Only once, Mrs. Woolsey took Rieseberg up on his offer. She met with him at the Ashworth-by-the-Sea restaurant in November 1995 - bringing three police sergeants with her. Rieseberg brought Chief William Wrenn. They talked about the disagreements on promotions within the department, with Mrs. Woolsey taking the union's side. The town's union presidents had all signed a letter expressing discontent with "top management," specifically Rieseberg. It stated that the credibility and effectiveness of the town's management was "called into question on a daily basis."
The undercurrent of tensions came to a head in November 1995, when the local press discovered that Rieseberg was one of nine candidates for the city manager's job in Soldotna, Alaska. Rieseberg said he'd sent an application to the town during the summer "on the spur of the moment," and later forgot about it. He told the press he didn't know he was a candidate. However, he failed to tell them he was an "applicant." He told selectmen he answered questions from reporters honestly - after all, none of them used the word "applicant" when speaking to him about Soldotna. During the next selectmen's meeting, Foster's Daily Democrat reporter Nicole Schiavi presented Rieseberg with a dictionary, telling him she wanted to be sure to keep his word definitions straight. The audience chuckled, but Rieseberg was irate.
Several selectmen said they didn't believe his answers on Soldotna. At the Nov. 27, 1995 selectmen's meeting, Mrs. Woolsey accused Rieseberg of "prancing around" questions on his job search.
"I am greatly unhappy and no longer willing to trust a town manager whose word cannot be trusted," Mrs. Woolsey said to him. "I don't care if you apply to 500 places. The matter with which this was handled in the media was embarrassing."
She berated Rieseberg for his hiring practice for the jobs of police chief, recreation director and transfer station coordinator, accusing him of choosing to hire his friends from other areas for town jobs. Rieseberg denied her claims -- and revealed his own feelings about his job.
"Every single person who has come to work for this town is subject to character assassination," Rieseberg said. "Is there anyone good enough to work for this town?"
Rieseberg then demanded the selectmen vote in public whether they had confidence in him. Gillick, Powell and Warburton all gave him a vote of confidence, but Moody said he wasn't going to take part. He didn't like the point-blank demand for the public vote, Moody said later, and he found Rieseberg's explanation on Alaska "somewhat deceptive and a little bit sleazy."
Four days later, on Dec. 1, Mrs. Woolsey demanded selectmen hold an emergency meeting to discuss Rieseberg. She was threatening to call an impromptu press conference to attack Rieseberg's credibility, and tell reporters she thought the other selectmen had a plan to put Gillick in as town manager when Rieseberg finally left. Powell called Rieseberg early that morning and warned him that his job would be discussed, and that he'd "better get a lawyer." Rieseberg had his administrative assistant get his personnel file out of the town office, and he and his wife met with his attorney, Eleanor MacLellan, at the law office of Steve Ells, the town's attorney. At 11:30 that morning, all five selectmen gathered at the town offices for a long, nonpublic meeting to discuss the future of Rieseberg's job with the town.
What took place over the following 12 hours is only known to the woman and four men in the conference room - but each has a different account. The few, undisputed facts are these: The discussion was heated, the vote was three-to-two, and the manager was through, taking $125,000 with him when he left town.
As chairman, Powell convened the meeting and Mrs. Woolsey motioned to take the issue into nonpublic session. Administrative Assistant Karen Anderson left the room, and Powell took over recording the minutes. At 11:34 a.m., Mrs. Woolsey motioned that the board tell Rieseberg he either resigns immediately or he'll be fired. It was seconded for discussion.
Mrs. Woolsey, Moody and Warburton were ready to fire Rieseberg that morning. They told Powell and Gillick that Rieseberg had embarrassed the board and ruined his credibility with the Soldotna affair. Mrs. Woolsey said, "I will not allow Hunter Rieseberg to sit in that chair" pointing to the manager's chair "on Monday evening." She said she'd heard rumors that Rieseberg had another job lined up, and she and Moody asked the other selectmen if they knew anything about it. Powell told them, "I don't know." He added that it was common practice in business for employees to send out resumes, and he didn't think Rieseberg was being devious. Gillick said he thought Rieseberg was looking at a job "somewhere out past Keene," but he wasn't sure. Actually, both Powell and Gillick said later they knew Rieseberg was considering a job in Hartford, Vt., but they didn't know if he was definitely going to get the job or if he would take it if offered. Powell said later he told the other selectmen that Rieseberg had been offered the Hartford job, but town officials were working out minor details. And Gillick said later, "I went on at length with Arthur Moody (about the issue). I attempted to persuade Arthur, why can't we wait a few more days, then he would ask our permission (to leave)?" But Moody, Warburton and Mrs. Woolsey all said if he'd told them that during the Dec. 1 meeting, it would have saved the town $125,000. Both Moody and Mrs. Woolsey said later that the town of Hartford was never mentioned during the nonpublic meeting.
The five selectmen argued the issue around and around, before coming to a vote at 12:56 p.m. It was decided: Since the majority of the board had no confidence in Rieseberg, he may submit a voluntary resignation. Mrs. Woolsey, Warburton and Moody voted in favor; Gillick and Powell were opposed. In just four days, Rieseberg's vote of confidence was reversed and he was out of a job. Warburton had cast the majority vote for Rieseberg at the Nov. 27 meeting, and became the swing vote against him. In explaining his change of mind, Warburton said later, "I believed that Hunter had lost his effectiveness as our manager, although I had confidence in his skills as a town manager. By the mere fact that Hunter had been looking for other employment and expressed his displeasure with the board, I believed he also felt that he was becoming ineffective as Hampton's town manager.
Now it was up to the board to work out the terms of his resignation. Some of the following details are taken from notes made by Moody during the emergency meeting; others came from later interviews with selectmen and Rieseberg: Ells conferred with Rieseberg and his attorney, and returned to selectmen with Rieseberg's proposal: $200,000 (to cover two year's worth of salary and benefits, attorney's fees and $40,000 enhanced compensation damages), plus a good recommendation, absolute confidentiality (no chatting with the press about the deal), and no recupercussions from selectmen. If they agreed to his terms, he was prepared to resign immediately.
An hour later, Mrs. Woolsey, Moody and Warburton voted to send him a counter-offer of $100,000 ($99,000 with $1,000 for attorney's fees). Ells brought their offer back to Rieseberg, and called an hour later with another offer. This time, Rieseberg wanted $180,000, plus his attorney's fees, and health insurance until he finds a new job. He also wanted the regrets of selectmen, and for them to publicly ask him to reconsider leaving. He also wanted to be allowed to take his possessions from the office at night with only Ells or Wrenn as observers. Those possessions would include copies of any forms or policies he instituted and an aerial photo of the closed town landfill.
The selectmen considered this proposal for nine minutes, with Powell and Gillick remaining strongly opposed to forcing Rieseberg out of the job. Then, at 6 p.m., Mrs. Woolsey motioned to fire Rieseberg for lack of credibility and confidence. Warburton seconded the motion, and Powell called Ells to tell him the news. Either Rieseberg is fired, or he resigns with $25,000 added to the previous $100,000 they offered earlier. Adding $25,000 was Warburton's idea, Powell said later, quoting him as saying, "Let's give him (Rieseberg) another $25,000 just to get him to accept." Then Mrs. Woolsey said, "If he does not accept this we will go to the press and sing like the birdies." Powell said later he thought the two were threatening to endanger Rieseberg's chance at the Hartford job by creating turmoil in Hampton.They wanted a signed statement from the two attorneys that night. Powell hung up the phone, and selectmen began discussing putting Gillick in as acting town manager.
Nearly an hour later, Ells called back with Rieseberg's answer. He accepted the $125,000 offer and the terms they offered, and the $100,000 gag order on selectmen preventing them from discussing the deal. Rieseberg would write his resignation and date it for the following Tuesday. By 9 p.m., the documents were drafted and ready for review. Ells would accompany Rieseberg to get his possessions out of the Town Offices. Monday's regular selectmen's meeting was canceled to set up a special meeting for reorganization. Powell would read the selectmen's short statement at a press conference. This was the press release: It is with sincere regret that the Board of Selectmen announce the receipt yesterday of the resignation of Hunter F. Rieseberg as Hampton's Town Manager. The resignation is effective as of midnight, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 1995. Mr. Rieseberg has indicated that the basis for this resignation is his interest in pursuing his career in an environment more conducive to his professional and personal/family interests. It is with great regret, respect and understanding that we accept his resignation. His work for the Town has always been of the highest quality, executed efficiently and always in the best interests of the Board, its policies and directives, and in the best interests of the community at large. We have come to know him to be an honest, sincere and resourceful public professional, dedicated to his craft and his constituents. He will be difficult to replace, and we wish him only the best in his future endeavors.
Selectmen also wrote a three-page letter of recommendation to William Adams, the chairman of the Hartford (Vt.) Board of Selectmen, praising Rieseberg's work for the town. They noted his ability to obtain $1.7 million worth of state and federal grants for the town, his work on the Capital Improvement Plan, and overseeing the extensive town sewer collection and treatment plant.
By 11 p.m., Ells brought selectmen Rieseberg's resignation, dated Tuesday, Dec. 5, 1995. It read: "Dear Mr. Powell, It is with deep regret that I herewith submit my resignation as Manager for the Town of Hampton. ... It saddens me to end my employment with the Town of Hampton at this time. However, I am pleased at my accomplishments during my three-year tenure. Together with the Board we have accomplished a great many difficult tasks, including but not limited to the closure of the Hampton landfill, construction of the transfer station, computerization of Town facilities, reorganization of the police department, all done during a variety of routine, day-to-day management of the Town's affairs. ... I now leave Hampton to pursue my career objectives in a manner more complimentary to my personal/family and professional interests. ..." By midnight, it was over.
Rieseberg did not return to the Town Offices on Monday. On the outside, some guessed that the day-long emergency meeting concerned Rieseberg, but few knew what had happened. Although Powell and Gillick voted against firing the town manager and giving him $125,000, they signed the agreement and agreed with the gag order. All five selectmen, regardless of their feelings, had to follow the gag order and not speak a word about the emergency meeting. If they did, they'd subject the town to $100,000 in fines — payable to Rieseberg.
As for Soldatna, Alaska, Rieseberg didn't get the job because he wasn't a "people person" and the search committee didn't like the way he responded to questions about his candidacy, Mayor Ken Lancaster told Foster's Daily Democrat. Meanwhile, the Hampton Union reported that Rieseberg was being considered for the Hartford job. Selectmen there were due to discuss the search in a nonpublic session on Dec.5, 1995 — the day after Hampton selectmen were holding their press conference on Rieseberg's resignation. They voted to hire Rieseberg because his demeanor and professional experience impressed them, Adams told Foster's Daily Democrat. He was due to start there Jan. 8, with a starting salary of $61,000. He planned to move with his wife to his father's home in Marlow, and commute to his new job.
By 9 a.m. on Dec. 6, 1995, selectmen held their press conference. Powell read the prepared statement on Rieseberg's resignation. The Board met again that evening for the reorganization. Gillick was appointed to the acting town manager's position and Michael Plouffe, who had been a runner-up in the previous election, took his seat on the board. Most of the selectmen were lighthearted and cheery with the audience, congratulating those who assumed new positions. They predicted a change in town government with Gillick at the helm. "I think Tom is going to create a very cohesive and talk-things-out atmosphere," Warburton said, adding that "it's time to move on. Tom will bring the town together."
"It is my intent to serve the board by accomplishing those matters that the board wants accomplished and by communicating to the board in a prompt fashion those other matters that come up in the day-to-day," Gillick said. "We are making town government more approachable," Mrs. Woolsey said. One person, at least, was not pleased. No, Powell answered one reporter's question, he was not relieved Rieseberg was leaving. He considered Rieseberg to be a friend.
The next week, Rieseberg sent Ells a letter asking that the first installment of $62,500 be sent to his attorney before the end of the year. The second payment was to be issued within the first 10 days of January. Rieseberg asked that both checks be issued by the town and made out to Holmes & Ells (the town's attorney), and that Hampton law firm would disburse the checks to Sulloway & Hollis in Concord (the law firm of Rieseberg's attorney). The checks were sent: one on Dec. 27 and the second on Jan. 4. The minutes of the Dec. 1 meeting were sealed. The town of Hampton and Rieseberg were officially clear of one another — except for that $100,000 gag order.
There was camaraderie on the outside, but suspicions were running deep. The day of the reorganization, Hampton Union reporter Steve McGrath sent Powell a letter requesting copies of information and records regarding Rieseberg's employment. Gillick answered the letter on Dec. 7, sending McGrath a copy of the contract between the town and Rieseberg, adding that the reporter could review any other information with Ells at a later time. That did not satisfy the newspaper, which sent a written request for information under the state's Right to Know law. Ells responded that information the Hampton Union wanted was exempt from public disclosure.
Speculation in the press began when reporters stumbled across the invoices for the $62,500 checks paid to Holmes & Ells. Gillick would only say the money was not a budget expense, and that selectmen transferred the funds to back up the check on the advice of counsel. "What it says there (on the invoice) is all that can be said," John Adams, the town's financial officer, told Foster's Daily Democrat. "You have to draw your own conclusions."
So they did. The press and public figured that the amount of money paid to the lawyers was the equivalent of the amount of money Rieseberg would have received if he'd completed his three-year contract with Hampton. The facts added up: selectmen meeting privately to discuss Rieseberg; the town manager's abrupt resignation; the checks sent soon after he left town.
The Hampton Union's decided there was too much left unsaid. On Jan. 10, 1996, the editor of Rockingham County Newspapers, (which publishes the twice-weekly paper) filed a petition against the town of Hampton, requesting access to records surrounding Rieseberg's resignation. In his petition to Rockingham County Superior Court, editor Thomas P. Lynch detailed the steps it had taken to get information and the response, or lack of it, from town officials. It noted that the pertinent records were sealed, and that the town's attorney told them the documents were exempt from public disclosure.
Lynch argued that the documents should be open to the public. "The Hampton Union believes the benefits of disclosing records showing taxpayers how their money is being spent outweigh the benefits of nondisclosure. ... The N.H. Supreme Court, in Mans v. Lebanon School Board ... required disclosure of individual salaries and employment contracts of teachers. The Hampton Union believes any compensation to Mr. Rieseberg beyond that compensation for time he actually worked — e.g. severance pay — is equivalent to the concept of 'salaries.' "
Judge Douglas Gray returned an order in six days, saying he had insufficient information and wanted an in-camera review of the facts of this case before making a decision. Gray ordered the town to provide copies of all executive session minutes, correspondence and any other documents concerning the issues in the petition within 10 days. Gray wrote that he would review all the documents in private.
The town responded by sending the court the sealed minutes from the Dec. 1 emergency meeting, the agreement it reached that day, along with the cover note for the sealed envelope. The town also included: Gillick's Dec. 7 letter to McGrath and the subsequent letter from Dec. 15, a copy of the town manifest showing the $125,000 payout, copies of the checks and letters enclosing them. The sealed minutes of the Dec. 1 meeting didn't reflect the volatile temper, or the discussions in the 12 hour session: "Following day-long discussions with the Board of Selectmen and H.R. and the parties' attorneys it was, upon motion made (MLW) and seconded (BW), voted to accept the terms and conditions of Agreement dated Dec. 1, 1995, and to execute said Agreement and to do all things necessary to comply with the terms thereof. Voted: MLW, BW, and AM for; PP and TG against; motion passed. It was further determined by the vote of all five members that divulgence of the minutes and decisions reached in this nonpublic session would render the proposed action ineffective."
Gray reviewed the documents and came back with a decision on Jan. 22, 1996: The town of Hampton had to comply with Rockingham County Newspaper's request for information pertaining to Rieseberg's resignation. He noted selectmen's reluctance to divulge the information because they thought it would render their actions ineffective. However, Gray wrote, those were no longer the circumstances. The town accepted Rieseberg's resignation, and Rieseberg was working as town manager in Hartford. "Thus, disclosure of the information surrounding his resignation, including any sums of money paid to him pursuant to a termination-resignation agreement, will no longer render the proposed resignation ineffective," Gray wrote. The citizens of Hampton, Gray wrote, had a right to know the information surrounding Rieseberg's resignation.
The local press settled on the released documents quickly, publishing the information in the minutes and 17-point agreement with Rieseberg. The $125,000 was paid to Rieseberg, and the public could see the terms in the agreement. But the documents raised more questions: Was Rieseberg fired or did he resign under duress? Why did Warburton, who had voted confidence in the town manager before, suddenly change his mind? What happened in the 12-hour private meeting? And what was the $100,000 gag order all about?
Selectmen's answers to those questions were all the same: No comment. They said later that they wanted to talk, but were afraid of tipping off the gag order.That week, the five selectmen met with Gillick and Ells in a nonpublic meeting to discuss the judge's order. They voted unanimously to have Ells contact Rieseberg's lawyer, so she could tell Rieseberg they intended to comply with the order, and to ask for "relief" from him from the confidentiality penalty clause in their agreement. If Rieseberg refused, selectmen voted to have Ells file a declaratory judgment at Rockingham County Superior Court to modify the confidential terms of the agreement. Until then, no town officials were going to comment on the incident and risk being slapped with a $100,000 fine.
In a confidential memo to Gillick, Mrs. Woolsey drafted the letter to go to Rieseberg's lawyer. She explained that selectmen had agreed to the $125,000 and gag order to allow Rieseberg to make a smooth transition into his new job. Now, they wanted the gag order lifted so they could comply with the court decision.
"The ruling of the Court with regard to disclosure of the financial settlement, while continuing the gag provisions, has left us with 'half a loaf.' Contrary to the folk wisdom that 'half a loaf is better than none,' we find that divulging the financial settlement without the opportunity to explain circumstances has taken away our right to explain our actions to the public. We assure the Court and counsel for HFR that our actions have been motivated by a desire to protect the Town from potential legal action, and to protect HFR from significant damage to his professional career. We have held steadfastly to the terms and conditions of the agreement, which we negotiated in good faith."
By February, it appeared that town officials couldn't even begin to dismantle the gag order. Ells researched whether the town could file a request for judicial modification, and found that simply filing the action would subject the town to the $100,000 penalty. Selectmen decided to drop the issue, but residents were not about to let them forget.
Election time was growing close, and the furor over the $125,000 inspired 10 residents to run for the two open seats on the Board of Selectmen. Powell's three-year term was up, and Plouffe's appointment ended in March. Plouffee filed candidate papers with the town clerk, as did Budget Committee Chairwoman Virginia Bridle, Planning Board member Peter Olney, Zoning Board member Wendell Ring, Budget Committee member Bonnie Searle, and residents Lee Griffin, Patrick Hayes, Francis MacNeil, Jason Page and Leroy Charles Thayer.
One person, however, was conspicuously absent from the pack. Powell wasn't running. He had been chairman during the attack on Rieseberg, but had been unable to prevent three other selectmen from forcing his friend to resign. Although he hadn't voted to spend the $125,000, Powell was still under suspicion by residents who wanted to know what happened in the hush-hush meeting. Powell said later he decided not to run for selectman because he was setting his political sights higher — on county government.
By not running for re-election, Powell neatly avoided some of the lambasting the other four selectmen would receive during the campaign season. Though they weren't running in 1996, all the selectmen were soundly criticized during the local meet-the-candidate sessions. Residents were furious about the pay-off, and political hopefuls got the most applause when they emphasized running an "open, honest" Board of Selectmen. By March, Mrs. Bridle and Plouffe were elected to three-year terms on the Board.
The new selectmen were still settling into their positions in April when residents started questioning the search for a new town manager. Or rather, the lack of it. Curt McCrady and Bruce Nickerson finally went before the selectmen at the April 15 meeting, and asked board members when they'd begin searching for a new town manager. "We are not here to disrupt anybody's feathers," Nickerson said. "Our concern is the strength of the existing manager." Gillick had been acting manager since Rieseberg left four months ago, and McCrady said he thought it was becoming "a lame duck situation."
Mrs. Woolsey flew to Gillick's defense. "I have never ... worked with a town manager who has been more open, more gracious and more firm," she said, adding that selectmen needed a transition period before finding a permanent manager.
But Warburton agreed with the two men, saying there would be a stigma on the town because it had an acting manager. And Mrs. Bridle, who said in her campaign that finding a new manager was a priority, said she had asked the other selectmen weeks ago about getting started. This discussion finally broke through the seeming reluctance to find Rieseberg's replacement, and selectmen began discussing in earnest who the next manager would be. Most said they wanted to start over completely and find a new manager with no links to the town. They all agreed they wanted someone who would be fair and honest, work well with the public and town employees, and have a working knowledge of New Hampshire municipal government.
Gillick thought he would be the perfect candidate. At the May 6 selectmen's meeting, Gillick presented his resume and letter of application for the town manager's job, offering to keep working through June 30, 1997. Though appointed to serve through Labor Day 1996, Gillick said that working an extra year would allow him to continue handling large-scale projects in town, such as closing the landfill, reorganizing the police department, getting the Sun Valley sewer project going, as well as training a new town manager. "I don't think it's fair to you or to me or to the people of Hampton that I make believe I'm working on a part-time basis," Gillick told selectmen. "I can't deal with the department heads on a day-to-day basis without thinking past September. You need to have a permanent town manager."
Mrs. Woolsey was prepared to nominate him on the spot. "I have never worked with a manager who has been as cooperative, as on the ball, as aware of his positionary relationship to the Board, and fair," she said. But the other selectmen didn't back her. Mrs. Bridle and Plouffe both said they wanted to stick to their original plan of finding a new manager, while keeping Gillick on as the acting manager.
"When we ran for this position, we had great discussion on having a new town manager," Plouffe said. "Tom has done a wonderful job since December. He's worked very well with the Board, he's worked very well with the public ... but nonetheless, the agreement was he would be an interim town manager. And when I came on the Board in December, it was agreed we would search for a new town manager." Searching for a new person, and keeping the search public, would help alleviate the atmosphere of secrecy that hung over selectmen since Rieseberg left town, Mrs. Bridle said.
That ugly political atmosphere was something a new town manager had better be able to negotiate, Warburton said. "Hampton is not an easy town to manage, and the person has to understand that coming in," he said. Residents are savvy, the local labor unions are powerful and dealing with the onslaught of summer tourism makes Hampton a unique town to handle, he said. The right candidate "must have broad shoulders and thick skin," Warburton said.
He or she should conform to selectmen's will, said Moody and Mrs. Woolsey. The new person should be "man enough and manager enough to successfully delegate authority, to let his or her own staff blossom," Mrs. Woolsey said. "And, finally, the new manager must understand his position in relation to the Board. The new manager must not, and will never be, a sixth selectman."
By June, the selectmen had their advertisement ready. Help Wanted: A master's degree in public administration or business administration, and at least seven years of experience managing a town or city. The right candidate should have experience handling budgets, labor agreements, state and federal grants and purchasing orders. The right person would be accessible to residents and in tune with the town's needs, and should move to Hampton within six months of hire. The town was offering a salary in the upper $60,000 range to the low $70,000 range. The job was being advertised in major newspapers. Selectmen asked the New Hampshire Municipal Association to help narrow the pool of applicants to 15 candidates.
Meanwhile, other paperwork was also being filed — at Rockingham County Superior Court. Rockingham County Newspapers was back with a petition to break the $100,000 gag order. The newspaper group was arguing the gag order violated the state's Right-to-Know law, and that minutes from the emergency meeting on Dec. 1 did not show the contents of the proceedings. Not surprisingly, the beleagured Board of Selectmen decided to side with that petition. They answered it by asking the judge to find the gag order fines unenforcable. Rieseberg's lawyer, Eleanor MacLellan of Concord, found out about the town's move, and countered with a motion to intervene. She claimed that neither the newspaper group nor selectmen gave Rieseberg any warnings about what they were trying to do, and he wanted a chance to review the petition personally. The secret meeting wasn't going to be made public without a fight.
By the end of July, the New Hampshire Municipal Association had pulled 15 top candidates out of a pool of 80 applicants for the town manager's job. Selectmen started reviewing the resumes of the finalists, and choosing the ones they wanted to interview. Without a chance of becoming the manager, Gillick took his two week vacation at the end of August — and a permanent holiday from town affairs. He would not return. With budget season drawing close, selectmen were under pressure to find someone new. They were busy with the work of finding a new manager when the judge made a decision on the newspaper group's petition on Aug. 14.
The public's right to know won. Judge Patricia Coffey ruled the $100,000 gag order couldn't be enforced because it violated public policy of allowing residents to know why their tax dollars were spent. They had a right to know why Hampton Selectmen spent $125,000 in connection with Rieseberg's departure, she wrote. "Clearly, the public's confidence in the administration of the law through the town selectmen would be injured if this information is not disclosed," Judge Coffey wrote.
Judge Coffey made several points in her order: Because the minutes and agreement had been made public, Rieseberg should "have no justified expectation of confidentiality." No forfeiture would occur, because Rieseberg's "exit package" was paid and he was established at a managing job in Vermont. The gag order didn't serve the public's interest. "The public interest is in gaining knowledge of how and why tax dollars were spent in connection with Rieseberg's termination." The court's decision in January 1996 to release the documents set "a strong public policy in favor of disclosing this information." However, Judge Coffey wrote, Rieseberg could sue if selectmen made derogatory statements about him. Rieseberg and the newspaper group both had 30 days to appeal her order, and while past and present selectmen said they were eager to talk about the issue, they said they'd wait until the appeal deadline passed.
It was a long few weeks. People met at Marelli's market, at Shop N' Save, and at the library, chatting about the court's decision, and speculating on what led selectmen to give up $125,000 of the town's money. Mrs. Woolsey tried to hold the two other selectmen together in a pact of silence until a selectmen's meeting, when, she promised curious residents, all would be revealed. But when the September weekend arrived after the deadline passed — and no appeal was filed — Warburton, Gillick and Powell came forward with their own statements.
Warburton faxed a one-page explanation to the local press. "Many citizens have questioned why I voted on Monday, November 27, a vote of confidence in Hunter, and then four days later, changed my mind?" he wrote. "I believed that Hunter had lost his effectiveness as our manager, although I had confidence in his skills as a Town Manager. By the mere fact that Hunter had been looking for other employment and expressed his displeasure at times with the Board, I believed he also felt that he was becoming ineffective as Hampton's Town Manager." The $125,000 settlement, Warburton wrote, would not be unusual in the corporate world. Rieseberg had a contract through February 1998, and selectmen were bound to honor it. The $125,000 was settled on after hours of negotiations.
Good intentions aside, Warburton knew that some residents were furious about the payoff. "I stand by my actions," he wrote in answer to those who questioned him. "Some decisions that are made by elected officials become very controversial and this one is no exception. But I stand by my decision of December 1, knowing that I did so with no malice nor improper intentions. There may be many who choose to second guess the decision made on that day. I believe strongly that it was the best decision for the Town of Hampton and now believe that it is time for us to move on."
Powell's response was much longer, and more to the point. With his campaign for the Rockingham County commissioner's seat on the line, Powell also wanted to put the Rieseberg issue behind him. "It's my credibility here, as well. It's my political career," Powell told Foster's Daily Democrat. "I want to be the first one coming out (with this). ... I don't want to be reacting...I don't want to be defending myself." And he wanted to make several things clear. Several board members were threatening to ruin Rieseberg's reputation if he didn't leave, Powell said. "In my opinion, they were going to try to ruin him personally and professionally," he said. That's why Powell also thought the $100,000 gag order was important, because it would protect Rieseberg from negative comments that could embarass him and derail his career in Vermont. "I don't know what the problem was," Powell said. "In my opinion, there was not a problem that justified him being forced to resign."
Powell insisted that both he and Gillick tried to tell the other three selectmen that Rieseberg would be accepting a new job soon. Moody quickly disputed that. "I asked Paul Powell directly during the meeting, 'Is Hunter leaving?' and he said, 'I don't know,' " Moody told Foster's Daily Democrat. It marked the first of their public disagreements over what transpired during the Dec. 1 meeting. Instead of informing the public, the five local politicians were pointing fingers at each other. It left people even more confused, and angry.
At the selectmen's meeting on Sept. 23, 1996, Mrs. Woolsey and Moody read a joint 17-page statement detailing why they wanted Rieseberg to leave, and what happened during the Dec. 1 meeting. The statement was rife with accusations of Rieseberg's untrustworthiness, and their own suspicions that he was acting as a "sixth selectman." Moody read a rambling statement about Rieseberg asking to be reimbursed for buying $300 worth of Town of Hampton pins. Mrs. Woolsey talked about an "inner Board of Selectmen" made up of Rieseberg, Powell, Gillick and former members of the board who, she said, were allegedly secretly running town affairs. She offered as proof the renewed contract with Rieseberg, which she said she knew nothing about. Gillick later called her statements "absurd," adding, "I sat in Mrs. Woolsey's kitchen and went over the document with her. ... Arthur Moody received copies of it." When asked why they never spoke publicly of their mistrust of Rieseberg, Mrs. Woolsey said they felt outnumbered on the board. "I think the taxpayers took a beating," retorted resident Paul Corbett. "If you had been more vocal, some of this would have come out a lot earlier."
Like Warburton, Powell and Gillick, both Moody and Mrs. Woolsey said they stood by their vote to oust Rieseberg. They had "irreconcilable differences" with the town manager, and wanted him off the job. They claimed they didn't know he had the Hartford, Vt., job lined up, although they'd heard the rumors. "...Our best judgment was to avoid a situation of negligent retention of an employee whom we no longer thought fit to administer a $14 million budget and a couple hundred employees," Mrs. Woolsey said. "We accept full responsibility for our decision, bearing in mind that pertinent facts were deliberately withheld from us by our two colleagues on the board." They also offered Warburton an out, saying he was new to the board and "used" by the other selectmen. He didn't know what he was doing, they said. Warburton stayed silent as they read their statement.
Five people were involved in the $125,000 payoff, and they offered five versions of the truth, which they all stood by. Those blanket statements left more questions than answers. As Gillick responded the next day, saying he felt "blindsided" by Moody's and Mrs. Woolsey's comments, several residents were already circulating a petition to force all five selectmen to attend a public hearing and answer people's questions. Why was Rieseberg forced out so quickly? What did selectmen really know about the Hartford job? Why didn't Moody or Mrs. Woolsey ever mention their problems with Rieseberg before things blew up Dec. 1? The petitioners got their signatures, and the commitment from four of the five selectmen to attend the public hearing. "Everybody has to go to this, or it's not worth it," Powell said. But at the Sept. 30, 1996 selectmen's meeting, Warburton told petitioners to count him out.
The Rieseberg issue was nearly 10 months old; put it to rest, Warburton told petitioner Bonnie Searle. "We have received conflicting information," she answered him. "It seems unfair the public has to judge what is true and what is not without the opportunity to ask questions in a public forum." Selectwoman Virginia Bridle agreed with Mrs. Searle, and made a motion to hold the hearing at Hampton Academy Junior High School. Warburton was furious. "I will not be at any (expletive) public hearing," he shouted, and several petitioners stormed out of the meeting. By the following meeting, Warburton changed his mind slightly, giving a "definite maybe" that he would attend the hearing.
Meanwhile, Rieseberg's successor was chosen. The new town manager would be James S. Barrington, a former Texan who'd been working as city manager in Neptune, Fla., for six years. The 43-year-old man had previously worked as city manager in Iowa Park, Texas, and in the public sector. Mrs. Woolsey later said she was convinced Barrington was the perfect person for the job immediately during the interview because of his friendly, calm manner. He was married, with two teen-aged daughters, and said he was pleased to be moving to New England for the first time. He was unruffled by the ongoing controversy, saying, "Where there is controversy, people want to put it behind them and move on." He would be coming to New Hampshire to have his contract signed on Oct. 14 — the night before the public hearing on the Rieseberg controversy. Mrs. Woolsey said she wanted to put the Rieseberg issue behind them quickly, because they didn't want Barrington "involved in this mess."
But "this mess" wasn't going to go away. People in town were gearing up for an all-out war at the upcoming public hearing. Meanwhile, state Rep. Kenneth Malcolm was writing a bill that would prevent a "Rieseberg affair" from happening in other towns in the state. Payments and special agreements with public employees could be kept quiet under the personnel and legal clauses in the state Right-to-Know law — and that's what exacerbated Hampton's problems. Under Malcolm's bill, those payments would be a matter of public record because it would be money that came from the public coffers. There was little doubt that his bill would pass. Other legislators across the state told Malcolm they'd heard about Hampton's messy gag order, and they pledged to back the bill.
It was on Oct. 14, the 358th anniversary of the town's founding, that the five selectmen signed a $70,000 contract with Barrington. The new town manager grinned and poked fun at his Southern accent, saying that now he needed "to learn to speak English." People sitting in the audience applauded. It seemed like a chance for a fresh start for the town after months of sniping and back-stabbing. He was friendly and polite, and the town officials were nearly tripping over each other to welcome him. Mrs. Woolsey said she was so impressed with Barrington during his first interview, "that I never recovered from it the rest of the day." Fire Chief William "Skip" Sullivan pronounced Barrington "top-shelf." Mrs. Bridle said that Barrington's unfamiliarity with Hampton and New Hampshire was a selling point for her. "I like him because he doesn't know anyone, he doesn't have any connection to Hampton (and) he can come in and offer a fresh eye," she said.
The specter of the "Rieseberg affair" hung over the proceedings, though. Barrington's contract contained a clause that stipulated he could be fired for several reasons that included behavior that brings disgrace, scandal or disrepute to Hampton. And Mrs. Woolsey made it clear that she didn't want the problems with the last town manager to be repeated here. "Have we learned from experience? Yes," she told the audience. "An important factor for all of us to understand, it is the selectmen's responsibility to manage themselves ... to become the ruling body. Failing that, nothing," she emphasized, "nothing, will work."
In less than 24 hours, the good humor of that meeting had evaporated. About 400 angry residents were crammed into the cafeteria at Hampton Academy Junior High School, demanding answers from the five selectmen. Town officials may have wanted to put the issue behind them, but many residents made it very clear that $125,000 was too much money to forget. They couldn't get the money back, but some told the current selectmen that they'd be punished in the next election. "The polls are coming, and you people are going," shouted resident Joe Terrio.
The next three hours were the most grueling for the five people. They sat at a long table by the stage, facing out on a crowd of furious residents. Press from five local newspapers and the town's cable access station were watching. People lined up at the microphone to take their shots at the selectmen. And the five board members showed their apparent dislike for each other. Powell and Gillick sat together at one end of the table; Mrs. Woolsey, Warburton and Moody were huddled at the other end. Neither group looked at each other, except when one of them said something the other side disagreed with. Then, they nearly jumped on each other. Moody and Mrs. Woolsey accused the others of going behind their backs to extend Rieseberg's contract, which Powell and Gillick said was absurd. Powell said he told the others he was "99.9 percent sure" that Rieseberg had another job lined up, and Moody pounced. "You're not telling the truth, Paul. That's not the first time you haven't told the truth," Moody shouted.
If any of the selectmen sought understanding from the crowd, they were disappointed. All five were threatened by residents, who were upset the money was spent. All five told the audience they stood by their votes, pro and con, which incensed some residents. They suggested that selectmen pay the town back, and that comment brought cheers and laughter. But the one answer people seemed to want to hear from selectmen was never given: We made a mistake. "I'm damned if I'm going to sit there as an elected official and pay a man a salary to manage a couple hundred people ... if I don't trust him and find him credible," Mrs. Woolsey said, clenching her jaw. When some residents called the chairwoman "arrogant," she fired back. It was obvious the audience wasn't there to hear selectmen out; people came to tear them apart. "I have my doubts on why you are wasting your time," Mrs. Woolsey said.
By the end of the uproarious meeting, few new answers had emerged. People left the meeting still sputtering over the $125,000. Moody stayed at the table, looking through his files and talking to anyone who would listen about why he thought Rieseberg couldn't be trusted. Although the meeting was intended to allow people to question selectmen, it became an opportunity to chastise town officials. In the future, resident Bonnie Searle told selectmen, they ought to follow the rules listed on a bulletin board in the junior high's cafeteria. People turned and looked at the board, and began to laugh. It stated: "Think before you act. Manage yourself. Cooperate. Respect people and property. Behave in a safe and legal manner."
All over town, and even in surrounding towns, people were talking about "the Rieseberg affair." There seemed to be no gray area on this issue: You either supported the vote to force Rieseberg out, or you wanted to force the remaining three selectmen out. There was one person, however, who wanted the issue to fade away. It was Rieseberg. Although he'd been wrapped up in his new job in Hartford for the past 10 months, Rieseberg was still uncomfortably tied to Hampton. "It's been a constant hinderance (and) preoccupation," Rieseberg told Foster's Daily Democrat. "It certainly has made my transition more difficult just because (of) the amount of time, energy and resources it's consumed." And knowing that his two most outspoken detractors — Mrs. Woolsey and Moody — were now being grilled by residents didn't provide much satisfaction to the beleagured former manager. "It's too late for that for me," Rieseberg said.
Why didn't he attend the raucous public hearing on his resignation? Rieseberg said he wasn't invited. "I would have found it most interesting, because this whole thing is still a mystery to me. Why the whole event occurred is still a mystery to me," he said. And he offered a sixth version of what happened in the days leading up to his sudden resignation.
Rieseberg claimed that he and Warburton had lunch at The Blarney Stone at Hampton Beach about a week before the Dec. 1 meeting. He said he told Warburton that he was offered a new job, and that the selectman asked him to change his mind about accepting it. Warburton apologized for the way other town officials had treated Rieseberg and suggested that he receive a severance package when he left, Rieseberg said. Warburton told him that he would push for a "golden parachute," Rieseberg said. When reached for comment later, Warburton admitted that he'd had lunch with Rieseberg at The Blarney Stone, but denied the context of the conversation.
The matter was dead, the former and current selectmen would tell anyone who would listen. Let's move on, Mrs. Woolsey and Warburton would say. But the issue dogged the first of the five selectmen, when Powell was unable to beat Kate Pratt in the election for the Rockingham County Commissioner's seat. On Barrington's first day as town manager, the local press repeatedly asked him how he would quell months of turmoil. By being calm, and listening to people's concerns, Barrington answered. "When people are shouting, no one's listening," he said. "When you speak softly, they strain to hear." And his soft-spoken manner appeared to affect the Board of Selectmen. They were on their best behavior, openly praising Barrington and the good works of residents who came before the Board. Some might say that selectmen were in a better humor because of the new manager. But there was another reason: Election season was right around the corner. The three-year seats held by Moody and Mrs. Woolsey would soon be up for grabs.
In a town where residents introduce themselves at annual meetings by saying how long their families have settled here, there was little chance that people would forget the recent history of $125,000 spent. When Mrs. Woolsey announced her intention to run for re-election, and Gillick opted to get his seat back, people began grumbling about the "Rieseberg affair." Moody put his name in for the Planning Board, but he would not be immune to people's criticisms. Local resident Ralph Colliander was the first to make his feelings public. He had several red-and-white signs printed up, and gave them out to like-minded residents. The signs stated: "Enough is Enough! Anybody but Gillick or Woolsey."
Apparently, a lot of voters felt the same way. Gillick, Mrs. Woolsey and Moody were all crushed in their bids for public office, and some residents said it was the "Rieseberg affair" that guided their votes. "Definitely no Moody, Woolsey or Gillick," resident Paul Sicard told The Hampton Union. "That thing has really effected people." Environmental engineer Fred Rice earned one of the selectmen's seats with a landslide 2,325 votes, and Bonnie Searle, who pushed for the October 1996 hearing on Rieseberg, earned the other seat with 1,729 votes. Gillick was a distant third, with 925 votes, and Mrs. Woolsey, the most outspoken selectman on Rieseberg, was soundly defeated in her bid for re-election. She came in fifth of seven selectmen's candidates, getting only 562 votes. She was ahead of newcomer William Stoddard, who had just registered to vote in town at the same time he filed for office, and Francis X. McNeil, a perennial selectmen's candidate who usually did little or no campaigning. Mrs. Woolsey later lambasted the police and fire unions for not supporting her in the election. Meanwhile, Moody didn't muster enough votes for either of the Planning Board seats. Voters preferred incumbent Peter Olney and newcomer James Workman, who earned 1,000 votes more than Moody's 1,411. Angry residents took their revenge.
A month after the April 8 town elections, the "Rieseberg affair" resonated across the state. Gov. Jeanne Shaheen signed state Rep. Malcolm's bill into law. It guaranteed that all records of payments to a public employee who resigns, retires or is fired will be subject to the state's Right-to-Know law and be made public. "It is essential to the conduct of public business that public bodies, in order to be accountable to the people, make available all records pertaining to payments made to employees of the public body," the law stated. Personnel information was still protected, however, people had a right to know how much of their tax dollars were being spent on employee matters. No town in New Hampshire would have to endure the bitter arguments and lawsuits that tore through Hampton. It meant Colliander wouldn't be making up any more signs — "It's wonderful," he told Foster's Daily Democrat. "I think the people should know about it without fighting for six months."
And the new law may save the political reputations of town officials who might otherwise make gag order agreements. "It's too bad we didn't have it (earlier)," commented Gillick. "It would have made the situation impossible, and all the unhappiness and discontent wouldn't have happened."