For more than a year now, the town of St. Johnsbury has been wrangling over who should be town manager.
The debate comes in the wake of the select board’s decision to fire Ralph Nelson after less than two years on the job.
Nelson and a recent job applicant are both suing the town
But a veteran of St. Johnsbury politics has been appointed for now.
He hasn’t officially started work yet but already John Hall looks right at home behind a desk in the top floor of St. Johnsbury’s stylish new town office in a renovated railroad station.
The last time he got this job was 1996, and he served for four years. He’s also been a selectman, a state legislator, and a state commissioner of Housing and Community Affairs.
He owns an auto parts business in St. Johnsbury.
So why wade into the chaos that’s roiling town government?
“You know, that’s a good question. My wife asked me that, too,” Hall chuckled.
The answer, Hall said, is that he wants to help quell the turmoil in town. He said he will start by being a good listener and take diverging views into consideration.
“I think what we’ve got to do is make good choices, the best choices we can and then go forward and not get caught up in controversy month after month about things we have already made our mind up to do,” Hall said. “We’ve got to step forward and start accomplishing some things.”
Topping Hall’s agenda is rebuilding the town management team, filling long vacant positions. He also hopes to re-vitalize the retail economy downtown, which is struggling to build an arts district.
That’s good news to Scott Beck, who owns Boxcar and Caboose, a bookstore with a candy counter.
“And John…certainly knows the job. He’s, I think, going to be able to bring stability to town government very quickly. I think that’s incredibly important for economic development because people that are looking to make investment like stability in the communities they are going into.” Beck said.
That stability has been in short supply for years. Even Hall’s appointment drew some sharp opposition from a current and a former select board member.
But two new members elected in March appear to want to turn a brand new page in St. Johnsbury. That won’t be easy until two lawsuits against the town are resolved. Kyle Sipples is the town’s attorney.
“So at the end of the day it’s going to be up to a court. But certainly the town believes that Mr. Hall will be here for the long term,” Sipples said.
He said hiring Hall has been a rare example of consensus in this long-divided town, but he doesn’t necessarily expect all the furor to die down overnight.
That kind of healing, he noted, takes time.