Filing ballots

At right in this file photo from the 2016 presidential election, Peterborough Town Clerk Linda Guyette opens and files absentee ballots at the Peterborough Community Center.

PETERBOROUGH — Peterborough’s deputy clerk has resigned, but local officials are moving ahead with preparations for the Nov. 3 general election in the wake of a contentious inquiry this summer that concluded Town Clerk Linda Guyette had created a hostile and dangerous work environment in the town office.

In the meantime, the former deputy clerk plans to take legal action based on the conclusions of the third-party investigation into Guyette’s behavior toward her while on the job, she told The Sentinel Thursday.

In a written statement Tuesday, Guyette called many of the investigation’s findings “inaccurate” and said they would not affect her ability to serve in her elected position.

“[T]he public should feel absolutely confident that the Town Clerk’s Office is appropriately staffed and more than capable of carrying out its important duties with respect to its mandates, including this coming election,” she said.

But Peterborough officials expressed concern this fall that tensions between Guyette, who is the town’s chief elections officer, and other municipal staff would hinder their efforts to conduct the November election.

In a Sept. 18 letter to N.H. Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan, Peterborough Town Moderator L. Phillips Runyon said local officials must “put personal interests aside and pull together to conduct this process in the best way possible.”

“While some of the issues undoubtedly involve working relationships among town employees, those are much less significant to me right now than ensuring that our procedures leading up to and during the election are the most effective and efficient [as] they can be,” Runyon wrote.

In the letter, which he wrote after meeting with Scanlan, Guyette and N.H. Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough, Runyon said Guyette needed “sole possession and control” of residents’ requests for absentee ballots, indicating concern that she was not in full control of those records at the time. He added that Guyette also needed assistance in executing her responsibilities as town clerk, which he explained were “too demanding for her to focus on this important election without considerable help.”

In an Oct. 2 letter to Scanlan, Peterborough Select Board Chairman Tyler Ward said those concerns have been, or are being, addressed.

Ward explained that Guyette, Runyon, Deputy Town Administrator Nicole MacStay and select board member Ed Juengst met on Sept. 25 to discuss the town’s voting procedures. Deputy Clerk Gayle Bohl, who was not at the meeting, resigned several days later, he added.

Bohl — who appears to have filed the complaints this summer that prompted the human resources consulting group’s investigation into Guyette’s conduct — had served as the town’s deputy clerk since last fall, according to Alison Kreutz, assistant to the town administration.

The results of that investigation, which substantiated four of the five formal complaints against Guyette, caused the select board to ask for Guyette’s resignation in August. The clerk, an elected official who has served in the post since 2009 and whose current three-year term expires in 2021, declined.

New Hampshire town clerks can be removed from office by the local governing body only for having intentionally stolen or misstated public funds, having mismanaged them due to “gross negligence,” or for being unable to execute the role’s responsibilities due to incapacitation, according to state law.

Among the topics that Ward told Scanlan were discussed at the Sept. 25 meeting was Peterborough’s procedure for handling residents’ absentee ballot requests.

Exactly who had been handling those requests, which are processed by the clerk’s office, and the significance of that practice is unclear.

MacStay said Wednesday that while Bohl was largely responsible for processing them, Guyette always had access to the absentee ballot requests and that they were stored in the clerk’s office. Guyette referred a request by The Sentinel for more information to her attorney, who declined to comment on the record.

Scanlan could not be reached for comment.

But in a Sept. 28 letter to the select board, Scanlan echoed Runyon’s concerns and acknowledged a “serious breakdown in the working relationship” between Guyette and Bohl. He encouraged town officials to give Guyette control of absentee ballot requests.

He also expressed concern for what he considered an “apparent usurpation” of Guyette’s responsibilities and that Bohl was uncertain whether she was supposed to report to Town Administrator Rodney Bartlett or Guyette.

“If these clear lines of authority and responsibility are not clearly understood, the result will be a dysfunctional office,” Scanlan wrote. “It would appear to me that this situation is playing out in the Town of Peterborough.”

‘Hostile and abusive’

The relationship between Guyette and the select board has been testy since at least July, when the board tapped the Dover-based consultant Leddy Group to investigate allegations that Guyette was responsible for dysfunction in the clerk’s office and had mistreated town staff.

The complainant, who is not identified by name in the investigation or in correspondence between town and state officials, said she was “exhausted from constant berating and harassment” from Guyette. The complainant also alleged that Guyette had not trained her “to fulfill her role as Deputy Town Clerk,” according to the investigation.

Bohl was Peterborough’s only deputy clerk when the complaints were filed with Bartlett, according to Kreutz, the town assistant. Bohl resigned on Sept. 28, MacStay said Tuesday.

The Leddy Group inquiry concluded that Guyette was “hostile and abusive” toward employees and that she failed to train Bohl.

Bohl said Thursday morning that her attorney, Chuck Douglas, has notified the town administration that she plans to file a lawsuit next week based on the findings of the probe into Guyette’s behavior. Douglas was not immediately reachable by The Sentinel Thursday for comment.

The investigation also determined that Guyette demonstrated “a cavalier attitude towards protecting herself, the public, and town staff from exposure to COVID-19” by entering town hall on June 9 after having tested positive for the coronavirus. Guyette informed Bartlett of her positive test the same day, according to the investigation.

In her written statement Tuesday, Guyette disputed the finding that she received a positive test before going to work on June 9, attributing the confusion to an error she made when she initially announced the result. In the statement, Guyette said she actually received the positive test result on June 10.

Bartlett said Wednesday that Guyette first informed him of the positive result on June 10. A Leddy Group representative did not respond to a request for clarification on this discrepancy with the investigation’s findings.

Correspondence posted on the town’s website shows that after Guyette declined to resign, local and state officials began working to ensure Peterborough’s election procedures would not be affected by the investigation and its fallout. Scanlan met with Guyette, Runyon and Leishman on Sept. 17 to address the alleged dysfunction in Guyette’s office, according to Runyon’s letter to Scanlan the following day.

In his Oct. 2 letter to Scanlan, Ward said 1,400 absentee ballots had been sent to voters and that Guyette said she was satisfied with the process. Since the Sept. 25 meeting among local officials, he added, absentee ballot processing has continued “without delay” and select board members, town staff and volunteers have offered to help Guyette with her responsibilities.

“[I]t is our highest priority to ensure that all measures are taken to support the Town Clerk in whatever she needs to provide a successful election for our citizens,” Ward wrote.

Caleb Symons can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1420, or csymons@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @CalebSymonsKS.