SPRINGFIELD, Vt. – The Springfield Selectboard went into deliberative session Monday night, Nov. 30, following an hour long remote public hearing where Town Manager Steve Neratko gave testimony to explain his failure to assume residency – as required by his contract and the town charter – within six months of his date of hire, April 1.
When the board came out of session, a motion was made by vice-chair Michael Martin to approve the resolution calling for Neratko’s termination effective immediately. The motion passed unanimously with no discussion among members Walter Martone, Martin, John Bond, Kristi Morris, and George McNaughton.
It has been eight months since Neratko of Dover took over the position as town manager following the retirement of Tom Yennerell. Neratko was on administrative leave prior to this night. He said he made every effort to find a home to buy or rent. He looked at 50 houses, put offers on a few and even deposits, but his hopes were dashed after inspections were completed. Neratko said he felt strongly that the town manager should live in the town that employs him, and he hoped to have a long career and a home here but that the housing market and the pandemic made it extremely difficult. He told Chairman Walter Martone that looking at houses was at first an issue because of Covid-19 restrictions and then later, as the pandemic spread, his wife’s preexisting conditions put her at risk. Neratko said he spoke of those difficulties to Martone and Martin often during their weekly meetings.
On Nov. 5, a Windham County sheriff came to Neratko’s Dover home to serve him with the draft resolution for his termination.
Neratko was represented by counsel, Aimee Goddard, who was not sworn in as a fact witness but asked questions of the board and its witnesses. Attorney Stephen Ankuda of Springfield appeared for the town.
Chair Martone was sworn in as a witness and the vice-chair temporarily assumed the role of chair. Goddard asked Martone if he had spoken to Neratko about the resolution after the Oct. 1 deadline, and he said he did not. Goddard asked Martone how many days after service is made must the board meet. Martone answered five days. She asked if he spoke to Neratko about the resolution between the day of service and this hearing. Martone had no comment. When pressed further, Martone said he had nothing to say, as the board had not taken action on the resolution.
Martone asked Ankuda if the board had any authority to make a policy exception for Neratko. Ankuda said he was not aware of anything in the charter or state law that would allow deviation from the charter as passed by the Legislature.
Ankuda called witnesses Police Chief Mark Fountain, Parks and Recreation director Andy Bladyka, Town administrative assistant Brian Benoit, and president of Lovejoy Tool Company Todd Priestly who all said they felt it is important that the manager live in the town. Attorney Ankuda asked all witnesses if there were times when it was necessary to contact the town manager after hours. Fountain answered yes, for important issues – cases of shootings, stabbings, and abductions. Bladyka referenced a child’s injury during a sport’s event. Benoit said when racist graffiti was painted on a bridge. Priestly spoke of a parking lease.
Although the subject of the hearing was contractual residency, several witnesses told the board Neratko often failed to respond to phone calls and emails, and Benoit talked about the manager’s absences from the office. Martone, Goddard, and Ankuda had to remind the witnesses more than once about the reason for the hearing.
Springfield’s charter is 35 years old. In neighboring Massachusetts, many towns have done away with the residency requirement because it limits the pool of qualified candidates. In Vermont towns the residency requirement still exists.
When asked by Goddard about the charter, Martone said at the last town meeting voters approved the removal of the residency provision, but that it has not yet been approved by the state. When asked how long that might take, Martone said he didn’t know and that sometimes it takes months and even a year.
The board moved to adjourn immediately after the resolution was approved.
At a special meeting, Nov. 11, the Selectboard approved the appointment of Frank Heald as the interim town manager from Nov. 12, 2020 to Jan. 15, 2021. Heald was the Ludlow Town Manager for 15 years until his retirement in May of 2018. He recently served as the interim town manager in Woodstock, Vt.