Our particular form of democracy is one that operates under the presumption of good faith; that is, it leaves a lot of wiggle room for officials to carry out their duties, based on the notion that those in office will, regardless of their personal views, act in the best interest of all. It’s an optimistic and empowering philosophy, though perhaps, at times, a bit naïve. People are people, and don’t all get along all the time. It is heartening to know that even in such cases, they can still function enough to get the job done.
What brings this to mind is the monthslong conflict that raged within the picturesque Peterborough Town House last year.
As detailed by Sentinel staff writer Caleb Symons, the turmoil seems born of equal parts personality conflict and views on coronavirus dangers and social distancing. In another year, or involving different town staff, it might have simply resulted in the need for management to step in and force a resolution.
But in 2020 — a state and national election year — the dispute between Town Clerk Linda Guyette and Assistant Clerk Gayle Bohl was allowed to reach the point at which the town moderator, a state representative and the deputy secretary of state became involved, and at which questions were raised about the handling of absentee ballots in the primary and general elections.
The specifics of the battle boil down to tensions between Guyette, who is elected by voters, and Bohl, hired by the town. We suspect the two may have had differences previously, but any such disagreements were exacerbated when Guyette was diagnosed with COVID-19 in June. Upon her return to work, Bohl complained to the town administrator about her working conditions, and was temporarily shifted to work in the selectboard meeting room (though still as deputy clerk). Through the summer, the administrator and deputy town administrator tried to find ways for the two women to work together, with no luck. Guyette would not rearrange the clerk’s office; Bohl would not work in that office with her boss, and complained Guyette was continuing to endanger her and others.
After the July 14 town election, Bohl was moved to a workspace downstairs in the building. An outside consultant was brought in to look into the rift, and reported at one point, Guyette shouted at the town administrator: “You can keep your f---- — employee!” She later apologized, but the comment is telling.
Guyette and Bohl continued to ready for the fall elections in their separate spaces. At one point, Guyette complained Bohl wasn’t turning in ballots before leaving for the night, an issue with the state’s required “chain of custody” of the ballots. In response, Bohl said her asthma prevented her from bringing the boxes up the stairs, but Guyette could go get them if she wanted them. Eventually, the deputy administrator agreed to ferry the boxes to Guyette’s office each day. After the primary, the rift continued. Bohl eventually resigned on Sept. 28.
The previous week, in an email to the town moderator, Deputy Town Administrator (now Administrator) Nicole MacStay referred to the situation as a “serious personnel issue” and noted that while the clerk supervises the deputy clerk, the selectboard and administration are responsible for ensuring that the deputy clerk, a town employee, has a “safe and respectful workplace.”
And that gets at the heart of this conflict. The administration — even the selectmen — have no authority by which to discipline an elected town clerk (or other similar positions). Yet those officials constantly interact, work with, supervise and rely on municipal staff, to whom the town is required to offer a workplace free of danger, harassment or abuse.
That’s not to say Guyette was harassing or abusing Bohl in this case, though Bohl claims such; but state law forces together these workers who are charged with acting on the public’s behalf. If things go well, as they usually do, everything’s fine. If not … as this example shows, the result can be a drawn-out mess in which everyone loses.
In this case, despite their differences, both workers were able to continue doing their jobs well enough that their personal conflict didn’t affect multiple major elections in which an unheard of number of absentee ballots had to be prepped, distributed, received and counted.
Good for them; but the town got lucky things went that well. It sure seems as though Peterborough came close to becoming, as state Rep. Peter Leishman worried, “the poster child for missing ballots in the state of New Hampshire.”
Lawmakers ought to find a way to reconcile having elected and town-hired staff thrown together without placing either in a bad situation.