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Why Did the Citizens of Lisbon, N.H. Revolt?

In recent months, there’s been something of a populist uprising in Lisbon, New Hampshire. Outsiders have been run out of town, while the local government faced a small-scale coup.

The question is: Why?

Editor's note: We recommend listening to this story

Lisbon, population 1,500, is nestled between the Vermont border and the White Mountain National Forest. The Ammonoosuc River winds through, splitting the town.

Around lunchtime, Jeanne Becker and her brother set up a popular hot dog cart in a vacant lot just east of that river.

With a wire manufacturing plant just down the road and the White Mountain National Forest a short drive away, Becker figures it’s a good spot for business. And even on a gray day, there’s a steady stream of lunchtime traffic.

“Starting out slow,” she says. “Weather hasn’t been real agreeable. But it’s coming.”

Becker just opened ‘Lil Grams Hotdog’ cart this spring. She jokes that she got her paperwork filed just in time. Even though she lives in a neighboring community, she’s well aware of what’s been happening in Lisbon’s town government.

Credit Todd Bookman for NHPR
Jeanne Becker, proprietor of Lil' Grams Hotdog Cart, a popular lunchtime spot in Lisbon.

“Yes, we were happy to get our permit before it all broke loose.”

Before you can understand what broke loose--what led to more than a year of confrontations between some residents and their elected officials--first, you’ve got to understand Lisbon.

“It is a town that needs something good to happen to it,” explains Ina Lippard. She and her husband Ron have lived in Lisbon since the mid-1980s. For a while they ran a small jewelry and gem shop in town.

"When we moved here, we had a lovely bakery, we had a functioning drug store. It was a nice little town that worked on its own, and people got along, you could walk down Main Street and nobody was yelling at you,” she says. “And it's declined a lot.”

Even Lisbon’s biggest cheerleaders would admit the place isn’t exactly thriving. While New England Wire’s manufacturing facility remains the lifeblood of the town, many other blue collar jobs in the region have disappeared. The population of Lisbon hasn’t grown since the 1970s; property values have stagnated.

'It was a nice little town that worked on its own. . . You could walk down Main Street and nobody was yelling at you.'

This is the Lisbon that Thomas Demers wanted to fix as a Selectmen. After volunteering for the town’s budget advisory committee at the age of 24, Demers won a seat on the Board of Selectmen, the three-member executive branch, at age 25. Demers owns and operates a landscaping business in town, and serves in the Air Force National Guard.

I always feel that it is important for people, regardless of age, they should serve their town in some sort of capacity,” he says.

But after winning office, Demers came to see the big picture items would have to wait. There were more immediate matters to take care of. For starters, Lisbon’s books were a mess, in part due to a revolving door of town treasurers in recent years.

Lisbon was also without a Town Administrator, a common job in small New Hampshire communities. Think of the Town Administrator as a ‘chief operations officer,’ serving as a liaison between all the various boards and committees. He or she will oversee major purchases and bids, writes grants, deal with timber tax billings, land use penalties--the nitty gritty stuff that keeps a town going.

Lisbon had been juggling this workload between consultants, town secretaries and the part-time Selectmen.

“We were literally keeping our head above water at that point, we were maintaining, but just barely,” says Demers.

The Selectboard decided to post the Town Administrator job, and after interviewing a half-dozen candidates,the town hired a guy named Dan Merhalski. Merhalski previously held government jobs in Michigan, Maine and Massachusetts. He started in August of 2015; $40 an hour, plus an office in Town Hall.

“It was night and day being a Selectman this time while Dan was there, versus last time, when it felt a little more like we were flying by the seat of our pants,” says Peter Nightingale, who was elected to the Selectboard in March of 2016, about 8 months after Dan Merhalski was hired. This was Nightingale's second time being a Lisbon selectmen, and he describes Merhalski as organized and professional.

Tommy Demers says Merhalski “was like our Superman. ‘Dan can you do this? Yes, I will get that done.”

But - and here’s where Lisbon’s recent troubles begin - Merhalski wasn’t exactly welcomed by residents.

“I had the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” says Ina Lippard, a trustee for the Lisbon Cemeteries. She and her husband Ron pay attention to town business, at least certainly more so than most of us would, and they were immediately suspicious of Merhalski.

“He always wore black,” says Ron Lippard. “And one night I asked him, you really don’t come off as a genuine person who is interested in other people by looking like a funeral director. He didn’t smile, he didn’t laugh, and he didn’t change his attire.”

'The old lady could be pretty nasty herself.'

A few months into Dan Merhalski’s tenure as Town Administrator, tensions between him and some town employees began to bubble up. Merhalski implemented new personnel policies, and made changes to how town departments, such as Public Works, handled money.

Those changes didn’t go over well with employees, some of whom described Merhalski as overly aggressive and rude.

Many of these same employees had deep roots in Lisbon; they were known around town. Dan Merhalski was an outsider.

In the spring of 2016, residents and some employees began attending Board of Selectmen meetings to raise concerns about Merhalski and some of the changes taking place in the town’s management.

Credit Todd Bookman for NHPR
Ina and Ron Lippard, residents of Lisbon since the mid-1980s.

“We have somebody running the town that’s making decisions that doesn't even live in this town, that doesn’t see the impact that it’s causing this town, and we’re concerned that he doesn’t even care,” a resident is heard saying at one of these meetings.

During these public hearings, Peter Nightingale says the Board and Merhalski often defended their actions.

“There is an older lady in town who at many, many meetings was the one that would personally attack Dan, and then when Dan responded, it was like, ‘Oh my god, he’s so mean, he’s being mean to an 80 year old lady,’” says Nightingale. “Well, the 80 year old lady could be pretty nasty herself.”

Nightingale says one issue that kept popping up during these meetings is emblematic of just how low relations between the town and its government were beginning to sink.

“The Dump Truck thing, as stupid as it is, the Dump Truck thing made me mad.”

The Dump Truck thing. It started out as an accounting mistake. No money had gone missing, but $106,000 put aside for the purchase of a new town dump truck had somehow been put into the wrong account. While the Selectboard explained this situation at numerous meetings, some residents just wouldn’t let it go.

“There's still people on Facebook saying, ‘Oh, this person stole it or this person stole it, and we better get in some forensic accountant, they are taking money.’ And it was just ridiculous that this one clique in this case just was trying to push this out there,” says Nightingale.  

In the summer of 2016, less than a year into Dan Merhalski’s tenure as Town Administrator, that clique--or if you’d prefer, group of concerned residents--began to organize. They posted a petition in the gas station near the hot dog cart. It called for the removal of Dan Merhalski.

'I'm paying all this money. It gets to people.'

On July 11th, the Board of Selectmen presided over a public meeting that quickly turns chaotic. After reading the petition, there’s back and forth about employee grievances and whether or not Merhalski planned to close the town’s dump.

And then, a male voice in the crowd yells out, “Did you have this much trouble in the last job you got fired from?”

Merhalski fires back: “I didn’t get fired from my last job, so get your facts straight.”

Merhalski’s last job is worth mentioning. He was Town Administrator for Denmark, Maine, a small community about a dozen miles from the New Hampshire border. His tenure in Denmark ended as a result of tension with some town employees and residents who, like they would eventually do here in Lisbon, organized and launched a petition.

Many residents saw what happened in Maine as a red flag, but the Selectboard says while they were aware of what occurred during the hiring process, they didn’t foresee it being an issue.

After about an hour, the July 11th Selectboard meeting was adjourned. In the coming days, the Board released a public statement defending Dan Merhalski. He was not going to be fired.

For Ina Lippard, this was just the latest example of Lisbon’s elected officials ignoring the will of the people, and of taxpayers simply not having control.

Credit Courtesy of Robert Blechl/Caledonian Record
Dan Merhalski, Former Town Administrator for Lisbon, N.H.

“If you are paying some of the highest taxes in the state and you are seeing some of the worst roads, and you are buying bottled water because your water is no good, you are going to be upset,” she says. “I’m paying all this money. It gets to people.”

There’s this narrative in Lisbon that I heard from multiple people: that the tax rate in town is extraordinarily high, but the services don’t measure up.

Frankly, it’s the type of thing you’ll hear in just about every New Hampshire town, but it’s compounded in places that struggle economically. There’s a questioning of if government is being accountable, and harming rather than helping a community to get back on its feet.

It creates tension, and in Lisbon, that tension landed squarely on Dan Merhalski.

By winter, a second petition began circulating, calling for his role as Town Administrator to be put up for a town-wide vote. Rather than face that, on February 9th of this year, Dan Merhalski resigned.

In an email to NHPR, he writes that despite his honest efforts to work for the good of the town, “the rumor mill and petty personal desires eroded any goodwill.” He continues, “I wish the good residents of Lisbon all the best.”

'You need to start getting some respect toward the people'

The timing of Merhalski’s resignation was particularly bad for Tommy Demers. It was just a month before Lisbon’s annual Town Meeting, and Town Meeting requires no small amount of documents and budgets be assembled for public review.

“There’s a cause and effect. We get rid of Dan, so what happens? Who is going to do the work? The Board, we’ve already said we can’t do the work, and Dan was already swamped as it was. So what would we do?” asks Demers.

Demers, Nightingale and the third member of the Board, Matt Yeramian, scrambled to get everything in order. They took time off from their paying jobs, but it was clear that without a Town Administrator, the paperwork wouldn’t be ready.

The night before Town Meeting, March 20th, there was a meeting of the Board of Selectmen.

“The evening started out normally. They were one minute late, it was 5:46,” says Ina Lippard, reading over her notes from that evening. “They reviewed bills and contracts and papers, the normal things that selectmen do at the beginning of the meeting.”

Then, it gets brought up that the Board won’t have all the necessary filings ready for the next day. There was one document, however, that had already been distributed. It was the Board of Selectmen’s Report: a simple one page statement written by the Board members that in most towns in most years, reads as a fairly dry summation of the previous 12-months.

This one wasn’t.

Credit Todd Bookman for NHPR
Lisbon is tucked between the Vermont border and the White Mountain National Forest.

"The Board of Selectmen wants to first inform you that we have overcome extreme hurdles in 2016,” reads the opening lines. “Stemming from the rotating town government, town staff and overall Towns people [sic].”

The letter goes on to ask the public to stand behind their town and participate--the implication being the townspeople weren’t.  

“It was, aside from preachy, it was weird,” says Deborah deSantos, a Lisbon resident who, it should be noted, is married to the previous Lisbon Town Administrator. He lost his job in 2012 after the town voted to eliminate its funding.

Peter Nightingale says the Selectmen, in that report, wanted to send a message.

“I think the general thought was that we’re just sick of people bitching without stepping up to do something,” he says. Demers told me he didn’t want to paint a rosy picture of life in Lisbon, given the financial and social realities facing the town.

'I think the general thought was that we're just sick of people bitching without stepping up to do something.'

The letter, however, did not go over well with many residents. And that night, some of them let their displeasure be known.

“You need to start getting some respect toward the people,” deSantos angrily says to the Board.

Suddenly, Nightingale, fed up with hearing complaints, fed up with a year of criticism and rumors, stands up and announces his resignation. Matt Yeramian does the same, and then Selectboard Chair Tommy Demers turns over his keys to Town Hall. All three Boardmembers walk out, quitting the night before Town Meeting.

“Game over,” explains Demers. “You are not going to make these people happy. You can’t implement change that is going to have a positive outcome. You’re team is gone. They’ve been, the legs have been cut out from underneath them, you’re done. Its game over.”

Demers, who at the age of 25 ran for the Board, who serves his country in the National Guard and who wanted to also serve his town, he throws his hands in the air and gives up.

“That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.”

The next day, newspapersand tv stations made the happenings in Lisbon a story, the type of story an already struggling community doesn’t need.

“I think it was a terrible embarrassment for the town of Lisbon, for them to do that the way they did it,” says Lippard.

People assumed that the Selectboard plotted to resign at the worst possible time. Boardmembers, however, deny that’s the case.

For Deb deSantos, the battle over Dan Merhalski and the confrontations with the Board are nothing to be embarrassed over, because something needed to happen.

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” she says. “Bills weren’t being paid, nobody knew where the money was going, and the product that we were getting, from both the Town Administrator and the Selectboard was chaos. It was chaos. That’s the final word.”

Lisbon has calmed down considerably in the past few weeks. Many residents are praising the new Selectboard Members, and final preparations are taking place for this weekend’s Lilac Festival. Lisbon is also now accepting applications for a new Town Administrator.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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