Jim Kenyon: Dog daze in Hartland

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 05-04-2023 6:18 PM

It’s been public knowledge for a while that Hartland Town Manager Dave Ormiston and Town Clerk Brian Stroffolino aren’t exactly office pals.

But who knew their working relationship had gone to the dogs? Or precisely, Stroffolino’s dog.

Their feud escalated when Ormiston informed Stroffolino that his dog couldn’t have free rein at Damon Hall, the town office building. The dog must remain in the Town Clerk’s office, said Ormiston, whose job title gives him a large say over town buildings.

Stroffolino wasn’t about to let sleeping dogs lie. Not after Ormiston “abused my dog” by grabbing her, Stroffolino told me.

The dog wasn’t injured, but Stroffolino felt the need to take his grievances to the town’s Selectboard. In an email the board kept secret for eight months, Stroffolino wrote “as many of you may be aware of, my family has adopted a rescue dog and I have been bringing her to work.”

She enjoys “simply laying outside my office basking in the sun coming through our front entrance,” he added.

At this point in telling the tale, I’d normally give the dog’s name. Except the Selectboard’s lawyers redacted her name from the email. It’s confidential information exempt from the state’s Public Records Act, the $200-an-hour lawyers at Stitzel, Page and Fletcher in Burlington contend.

The palace intrigue at Damon Hall might be more waggish if it wasn’t coming at taxpayers’ expense.

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Ormiston has been on paid administrative leave from his $91,000-year-job since March 28. The board won’t say why it’s paying Ormiston roughly $7,500 a month to stay at home. The officials argue that it’s a personnel matter.

In Ormiston’s absence, the board placed Martin Dole, Hartland’s finance administrator, in charge of the town’s daily operations. For his additional duties, Dole’s annual salary was bumped from $70,000 to $84,000, almost $1,200 a month.

In separate interviews, Ormiston and Stroffolino told me their differences went beyond the dog, but didn’t care to talk about them in public.

Under the state’s public records law, I requested, among other documents, copies of written correspondences between Stroffolino and the Selectboard.

The legal beagles at Stitzel, Page and Fletcher weren’t about to roll over, however. (Sorry, the puns are irresistible.)

They heavily redacted an Aug. 25 email that Stroffolino sent the board. Along with the dog’s name, Stroffolino’s and Ormiston’s names were blacked out in the copy the law firm handed over last week in response to my public records request.

I wasn’t surprised (although seeing a dog’s name redacted was a first for me).

Lawyers who feed at the public trough by representing governments are well aware that Vermont’s public records and open meeting laws lack teeth. Historically, the Vermont Legislature has done little more than pay lip service to right-to-know safeguards. Lawyers paid with tax dollars go to great lengths to protect municipal and school official from public scrutiny with impunity.

Beriah Smith, a Stitzel, Page and Fletcher attorney who responded to the public records request, told me Monday that divulging the dog’s name would have outed the email’s author. Under the Public Records Act, the identity of town employees can be kept secret to protect them from retaliation by their bosses, Smith argued.

But Stroffolino is an elected official. He answers to voters, not a town manager or Selectboard.

At board meetings, time is set aside for the five members to discuss the latest correspondences. I’m not sure why Stroffolino’s email wasn’t shared with the public from the outset. (Board Chairman Phil Hobbie couldn’t be reached for comment on Tuesday.)

Canine fans would have appreciated it. “My dog is loved by all staff here at Damon Hall and by all other Town staff, as well as residents that come into the building,” Stroffolino wrote. “She is calm, does not bark, and does not bother staff or residents.

“She has had a few accidents in the Finance Office, but I have promptly cleaned them and have also brought a carpet cleaner to remove any minor stains that may have been caused by them.”

At a board meeting in late March, Stroffolino complained about a toxic work environment inside Damon Hall. He didn’t name Ormiston, but he didn’t have to.

Within days, the town’s Listserv featured posts from other Hartland residents who claimed Ormiston had been mean to them as well at one time or another since his hiring in 2017. At a board meeting on March 20, five residents voiced similar complaints that were short on specifics. In a town of 3,500 residents, I wouldn’t call that a groundswell of discontent.

In our phone conversation, Ormiston said the complaints were “an exaggeration of the facts and some of it seems personal.” (He put Stroffolino’s story about him abusing the dog in the same category.)

As for Stroffolino’s email, Ormiston said he was unaware of it. I read him some excerpts.

He acknowledged objecting to Stroffolino allowing his dog to roam outside the Town Clerk’s office. “It’s a public building,” Ormiston said. “Not everyone is receptive to animals greeting them at the door.”

Stroffolino started out as an assistant to longtime Town Clerk Clyde Jenne who retired in early 2021. Voters elected Stroffolino at the 2021 Town Meeting. Residents tell me that he’s helpful and knowledgeable about a town clerk’s varied duties.

On Tuesday morning, I stopped by Stroffolino’s office to show him the heavily redacted email. He confirmed that he’d written it.

A medium-sized mixed breed dog stood at Stroffolino’s side behind the office’s front counter. A gate prevented her from entering public spaces.

What’s her name? I asked.

“Kya,” Stroffolino replied.

Kya appeared quite at home.

Depending on how you view dogs inhabiting workplaces, that could be good or bad. Either way, it’s not a case for legal beagles.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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