Former St. Johnsbury Town Manager Will Take Battle For Job To The Supreme Court

Aug 21, 2013

A former town manager of St. Johnsbury has a lost a major round in his battle to get his job back, but he plans to take his case to the Vermont Supreme Court.

St. Johnsbury hired Ralph Nelson, a former Major League Baseball executive, as town manager in August, 2010.

Less than two years later, the select board fired him, and took his laptop, which Nelson’s lawsuit says invaded his privacy. Nelson has been fighting to get his job back, relying on a state law setting out the terms for a town manager’s employment by a select board.

“We think it means exactly what it says,” said Richard Cassidy, Nelson’s attorney.

“That the town manager is subject to the direction and supervision of the board of select men, holds office at the will of selectmen who by majority can remove him at any time for cause,” Cassidy recited from the statute.

The meaning of those last  two words, “for cause,” is what’s at issue in this case.  Ruling earlier this month in the town’s favor, Superior Court Judge Mary Miles Teachout concluded that not every select board has to justify its decision to remove a town manager.

If, as in Nelson’s case, there is no contract, and no terms of employment have been negotiated, then, Teachout ruled, the manager’s job is “at will”—that is, not protected by the law.

St. Johnsbury’s attorney, Kyle Sipples, applauds that decision.

“We were very pleased with the judge’s ruling in that it really is a clear interpretation of the limits of the statute and it avoids protracted litigation,” Sipples said.

But in fact the decision could trigger protracted litigation.

Nelson’s attorney, Richard Cassidy, plans  to bring it before the Vermont Supreme Court, not just to get Nelson re-instated, but to make sure all town managers can keep their jobs unless select boards can justify their removal.  

Here is where job titles could make a difference. Town managers like Nelson, Cassidy says, should be less subject to the whims of select boards than town administrators, though he admits the difference is not always understood by voters.

State law defines only the rights of a manager, not those of an administrator, so Cassidy says this case is an important way to preserve those managers' rights.

“So what’s at stake in this case is really the town manager form of government. If the appeal is unsuccessful, then there really will be no  significant distinction between towns with a town manager form of government and towns without it,” Cassidy said.

If Nelson wins his appeal, then, his lawyer says, town managers throughout Vermont will win, too, because their jobs will be more secure than Nelson’s was when he was fired.

Cassidy says it’s surprising  that the town manager employment  law has never been interpreted by a court before. That’s one point on which St. Johnsbury’s attorney, Kyle Sipples agrees.

“So I think everyone is chomping at the bit for the Supreme Court to give us its final word,” he said.

But that final word, if it comes from the Vermont Supreme Court, could take years to hand down. Meanwhile, there’s another lawsuit pending against St. Johnsbury, from the man who replaced Nelson. He, too, was fired, and he wants his job back, as well.