We’re All Columnists, Jim
“It’s been a rough few months for the Norwich Selectboard and its chief minion, Town Manager Herb Durfee.”
“Chief minion” is the name he chooses for our Town Manager in Norwich. This pretty much sets the tone for… well… for whatever this column is, which is hard to figure out actually. I am reminded, though, that Jim Kenyon isn’t a journalist. He had cornered me last Wednesday evening in the basement of Tracy Hall as I was leaving a Selectboard meeting early due to a medical situation (lame, I know), and as he began to weave his fairy tale together, I respectfully asked him to consider some alternative interpretations about the Town’s motivations for paying for a few stories to be published each month about things going on in Norwich. Jim replied, dare I say with a grin that reminded me of the Joker in Batman, “Not going to happen. I’m not a reporter. I’m a news columnist”. (CORRECTION NOTE AT BOTTOM)
We’re all columnists these days. We all have our own audiences. We can write something, anything really, and, in some cases (though usually not my case), it can go further than the articles written by the pros. As Matt Duffy shared years ago about NY Times columnists, “a columnist can be tough, acerbic, playful, joyful, angry, chagrined, outraged or anything else — within the general bounds of decency…” And according to Wikipedia, columnists don’t have to work for any paper, they can just post to a blog and still be a columnist. Jim Kenyon definitely fits the definition of columnist. But so do I. So do we all.
What you are reading here started out as a personal journal entry – my way of processing just about everything for the last 29 years. The only reason I am choosing to share any of this, knowing that I will likely be the subject of retaliatory prose in the near future, is because when my wife and a friend of hers read Kenyon’s article, they nearly immediately believed exactly what was written… they didn’t perceive any holes, they asked questions only because I was standing right there and had asked them to read the article. Too often, we all believe what we read. Even when we, ourselves, have been written about, and we know not to believe everything we read, we get lazy and choose to believe anyway.
Before I pick apart Kenyon’s article, and lose the few readers here, know these things. Herb Durfee doesn’t deserve to be called a minion. The people at Story Kitchen Creative didn’t deserve to be called PR flacks. Neither the Selectboard, nor Norwich’s Town Manager, has anything to hide and we certainly aren’t trying to cover the typical bumps and bruises of town government with “propaganda”. And while we always have challenges, the last few months haven’t been particularly rough for Norwich or its Selectboard as he claims. Jim Kenyon has a right and a somewhat effective vehicle to share his opinions. In response to one quote from our Town Manager, Kenyon followed with a dismissive “If he says so.” But in this case, just because Kenyon says so, definitely does not mean that it is so.
With that in mind, for the few of you interested, I took some time to dissect his Sunday column.
Kenyon quickly jumps on the rumor bandwagon, questioning the departure of longtime DPW head Andy Hodgdon who left suddenly a few months ago.
“Do you sense the break-up was less than amicable?” he asks conspiratorially, after sharing his mostly futile efforts to learn more. Luckily for columnists, they don’t have to wait until they’ve found answers to questions, they can simply spread rumors that have supposedly been passing the lips of concerned citizens all over Norwich. Nice work if you can get it.
The actual fact of the matter is that Jim is writing about a personnel matter. As may not be surprising, the staff in our Town are entitled to certain privacy protections, just as most of us are in our respective employment situations. Just as I would not necessarily share the circumstances with Jim Kenyon if one of my Boloco team leaders left suddenly, neither am I surprised that Herb chose not to make public any circumstances of Andy’s departure. That seems to me to be a responsible action by a Chief Executive.
Kenyon then turns his Grinch-like focus back to the aforementioned chief minion, because really this whole piece looks to be an excuse to publicly humiliate Herb for a recent tragic event in his personal life. In case you are not part of Jim’s rumor circle, Herb, on his own personal time, nearly died early in 2018 in an auto accident on a wintry I-89 near Burlington and spent days in the ICU with his life and certainly any chance of a healthy, normal life hanging in the balance – his wife and kids at his side. Yes, as has been widely reported, Durfee was originally charged with driving under the influence. None of us, Jim and myself included, has detailed knowledge of that night. Jim because he wasn’t able to find out – me because I didn’t try. Because unless and until it became Town business, it was none of my business.
Kenyon punctuated his story with “some people in Norwich questioned whether Durfee should keep his job, but the board stuck by him.”
You’re damn right we stuck by him. Healthy organizations do not discard people like garbage when they make a personal mistake that has no impact on their job. Like any employee of the town, our first and foremost concern was Herb’s full recovery and second how the situation might affect his ability to effectively lead Norwich and its employees. I was privy to lots of the “whispering” that Kenyon may be alluding to in the quote above. One person argued that if any other person working for the Town was charged or convicted with a DUI, they would be fired immediately. “The Selectboard would terminate anyone else, why protect Herb?” was a direct quote. Patently false. Have you ever heard of someone who had something like that happen on their personal time, perhaps other than someone whose exclusive job is to drive a town vehicle, and then get fired from their job? I’m sure someone reading can think of an example, but I can’t. Whatever Herb may have been doing that night before his accident, I personally would suggest that weeks in the hospital, the stress and terror felt by his kids and wife, multiple broken bones and surgeries, and the moral judgment of people like Jim Kenyon is more punishment than any of us would try to impose on him by virtue of our role on the Selectboard.
Kenyon continues: “With everything that’s been going on, I imagine Durfee and board members would like nothing more than to distract residents from their troubles.”
I honestly have no idea what Jim is referring to here. We’ve had below average attendance at our last several Selectboard meetings and – in the ultimate measure of town satisfaction – have seen fewer upset postings on the listserv in Norwich for a couple of months. One resident is “disappointed”* about the Town Survey because he gathered double the amount of responses in 2005 (990) than we did in 2018 (483) – can’t we at least be humbly victorious in this town? 🤪. In all seriousness, the surveys share a lot of concerns regarding lack of affordable housing, taxes, education, rural character, and more. Important work in progress.
So, what do we actually have to be upset about in Norwich right now? I personally am pretty upset that the Norwich Town Plan was recently rejected by the TRORC, after the TRORC staff had supported it, verbally and in writing, prior to the plan’s submission. It’s upsetting mainly because of the countless hours of public time and discourse trying to strike a balanced, thoughtful re-adoption of the 2011 Town plan, only to have it shot down for reasons that still aren’t prescriptively clear. But this is being talked about pretty openly (and with little heightened emotion) in Town so no one seems to be trying to distract from that.
Also, another challenge, I do wish that all 5 of us on the Selectboard could respect each other without exception. I actually think we do, but personalities and a bit of Groundhog Day effect regarding some issues at times test the manifestation of that respect in our meetings, and I find that upsetting at times (last week included). I have work to do. We all do.
Kenyon writes: “The board — at Durfee’s urging — has hired a public relations outfit that goes by the name of Story Kitchen Creative. The PR flacks will take pictures, write human interest stories about town employees and create “fun” posts that will appear on DailyUV… a digital media campaign to distract residents? … what better than a digital media campaign to remind residents how lucky they are to be living in one of Vermont’s wealthiest communities?”
Propaganda! You can hear the cries on the Listserve clearly. The first article posted is entitled: Donations in Mr. G’s memory yield new baskets in school gym. Yes, Mr. G was and always will be a legend. To many if not all. We are all lucky to live in a town graced by his presence for so many years. I, personally, liked the reminder.
In a second effort at this alleged “public relations campaign to spit-shine its image”, Norwich and it’s PR outfit have the following information to share: Delinquent Norwich taxes are up — and back to norm
I’m not sure about how others feel, but this isn’t exactly great news. But it’s important, and if our Chief Minion and his lowly staff felt this was worth bringing to people’s attention, I am not one to argue with that. Maybe there will even be an actual financial ROI on the town’s investment in this news experiment – maybe delinquent taxpayers will cough it up after seeing this reminder. (Full disclosure: Maggie and I goofed and submitted our Fire District taxes a few days late…we still haven’t paid the $108 penalty that was assessed last week, but will cut the check first thing Tuesday morning).
Speaking of finances, Kenyon identifies what he calls “…the kicker: Norwich taxpayers will foot the bill for all this good news fit to print.”
The Selectboard authorized a 3-month trial to determine if it is something the majority of us feel adds substantively to our communication goals. As one of my fellow Selectboard members pointed out last week, “in our adopted Goals for 2018/2019, finding methods to improve communication between the Selectboard and the town was listed. This is one example of an attempt to do just that.”
At $495 per month, to include 2 stories and 6 posts, I have to admit I’m wondering if I am in the wrong business. Think about it. If a “story” takes on average 5 hours to create and publish (Jim, something tells me your story here took a great deal longer than that, but I’m trying to be conservative), and each post, including data gathering, images, editing, and posting takes 60 minutes, that’s 16 hours per month. Assuming my estimates aren’t totally off, that’s about $30 per hour. Not a bad wage. Not bad at all. In fact, for those 16 hours, it would be above the livable wage of $27.42 for a single parent with one child in the state of Vermont. Yes, we will absolutely need to make sure it’s worth the money we pay to generate this propaganda campaign, er, new information, with the intent of better communicating with our neighbors. And you can be assured we will (and regardless of how much or little money, we really will).
“It all seems very Trump-esque”, Kenyon opines further. “…the president has Fox News, and now Norwich officials have DailyUV as their official platform to tell people what a great job they’re doing.” Pretty great irony that Jim invokes the specter of Trump after disclaiming his own responsibility for fact-based writing because of his status as a Columnist. How exactly, Jim, are you different from the hacks on both sides of the aisle that peddle their own fact-deficient rumors specifically to gin up anger and resentment? Sorry, neighbor, this is just ridiculous, even for you.
CORRECTION NOTE 10/21/18: The resident mentioned above as being “upset about the Town Survey” said that I had mischaracterized his sentiments; he was not “upset”, but instead “disappointed”. The correction was posted immediately.
CORRECTION NOTE 10/19/18: Originally I had quoted Kenyon as saying “I’m not a journalist. I’m a columnist”. He wrote to me a few days after this post as follows: