Rockingham and Bellows Falls fire Cullenen, hire Stearms as interim manager
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | April 18,2013
Len Emery Photo
Willis “Chip” Stearns attends a meeting Wednesday where he is named interim municipal manager for Rockingham and Bellows Falls.
BELLOWS FALLS — Rockingham’s finance director Willis “Chip” Stearns II was tapped as interim municipal manager Wednesday, a day after town and village officials voted to fire Timothy Cullenen.
The Rockingham Select Board and the Bellows Falls Village Trustees briefly met behind closed doors Wednesday afternoon, and later in open session reaffirmed their firing of Cullenen. The vote to end Cullenen’s contract was unanimous, in separate votes by the two boards which share the manager.
Cullenen’s departure was immediate, said Thomas MacPhee, chairman of the Rockingham Select Board, who along with Village President Roger Riccio informed a waiting Cullenen on Tuesday night that his contract was over. According to the terms of Cullenen’s contract, he will receive a three-month severance package.
MacPhee said it was a “vote of no confidence” in Cullenen. On Tuesday night, new Rockingham Selectwoman Susan Hammond abstained, saying she had only been on the board a month. But Wednesday afternoon, she voted with the others to fire Cullenen.
On Tuesday night as he packed his belongings into his vehicle in front of the town hall, Cullenen said he would fight his termination. He had been manager for about two years.
Cullenen had been reprimanded by the two boards last November and placed on leave after he had spoken sarcastically to village resident Jim Mitchell, an outspoken critic of Cullenen and well-known, controversial local blogger.
Mitchell, who was on hand for Wednesday’s emergency session, praised the board’s actions, and said it was “long overdue.”
After affirming the decision on Cullenen, the two boards hired Stearns, Rockingham’s finance director for the past year, to be interim manager for three months, with his performance to be reviewed after that time.
Stearns, 50, a longtime resident of Springfield and a native of Saxtons River, a village in Rockingham, will be paid a pro-rated $69,000 annual salary in the interim post.
MacPhee would not say what was behind the two boards’ displeasure with Cullenen, who had been hired almost exactly two years ago after a protracted search. Previously he had been town administrator in Ashland, N.H., but had also been terminated there.
MacPhee said this week’s firing had nothing to do with the stalled renovation of the Rockingham Free Public Library, which ground to a halt this winter when Baybutt Construction of Keene, N.H., failed to pay subcontractors. Baybutt failed to take out a performance and payment bond on the $2.3 million renovation project, which meant subcontractors had no recourse when they weren’t paid.
The combined Rockingham-Bellows Falls manager’s job has seen a lot of turnover in recent years: Jim Mullen had served as manager for about three years before he left in 2010 to be manager in Weathersfield. And prior to Mullen, the town was led by John Schempf for a year, who replaced manager Shane O’Keefe, who also was not renewed.
Stearns said he was going into the job with his eyes wide open, and said the two boards knew him and his management style well.
He pointedly said he would not withdraw his application for the Westminster town manager’s job, but said when he applied for that job two weeks ago, he informed Cullenen, then his boss, as well as MacPhee.
Prior to working for Rockingham, Stearns was employed by the New England Municipal Resources Center for more than 20 years, which works with municipalities on financial software solutions. Stearns said he was a solutions-oriented manager, and he said improving the town/village website was a priority.
Stearns said the biggest issue facing Rockingham is the renovation of the library, and in Bellows Falls, the upcoming annual village meeting where the village budget is approved.
Stearns is a 1980 graduate of Bellows Falls Union High School and a 1984 graduate of Lyndon State College. He and his wife have lived in Springfield since 1991, prior to that they lived in Saxtons River, where he grew up. They have a grown son, Willis D. Stearns III.
Stearns said his father, Willis “Bill” Stearns, a longtime milk truck driver in the area, was one of the founders of the Saxtons River Recreation Area, and despite living in Springfield, Stearns said he had always been involved in the volunteer-run rec area.
Clean-up day is Saturday, he said after his appointment.
“See you there.”