Published Date Written by Michael KitchLACONIA — The Belknap County Commissioners yesterday refused to permit the Belknap County Convention to hire legal counsel to represent the convention in litigation challenging the legitimacy of the election of its officers by secret paper ballot. The lawsuit was brought in Belknap County Superior by Tom Tardif.
Although the convention and commission are at loggerheads over their respective authority over the county budget, the convention acknowledged that state statute authorizes the commissioners to hire legal counsel to represent the county and sought its permission to engage independent counsel. In denying the request, the commission agreed that it would hire an attorney to defend the convention against the suit.
In a petition filed earlier this month, Tardif, a former mayor of Laconia and local government watchdog and David Gammon, representing themselves, charge that the election of Representatives Colette Worsman (R-Meredith) as chairman and Bob Greemore (R-Meredith) as vice-chairman at the organizational meeting on December 10 was "a clear attempt to circumvent the state's Right-To-Know laws."
Citing the minutes, Tardif notes that when the organizational meeting convened "a senior member referred to a case from 1971 and indicated that the election of officers should be done by secret ballot." By a show of hands all 16 members of the convention present concurred. Worsman and Greemore were elected by a secret paper ballot.
Tardif claims that the Right-to-Know Law (RSA 91-A) includes no exception for secret ballots, but on the contrary stipulates that all votes taken in public meetings "shall be by roll call vote." Moreover the Attorney General's memorandum on the Right-to-Know advises that, "No vote in a public meeting may be taken by secret ballot" except for town meetings and elections, school district meetings and elections and village district meetings and elections."
When the convention met this week Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) asserted that the election of officers was legitimate and offered a motion to "reaffirm" it. He recalled that when the convention elected Sheriff Craig Wiggin to complete the term of Dan Collis by secret ballot was successfully challenged in the New Hampshire Supreme Court, the remedy was to reaffirm the original vote. Since Tardif has challenged the legitimacy of subsequent actions taken by the convention, Tilton suggested that by reaffirming its election of officers the convention would protect its forthcoming vote on the 23013 county budget.
Rep. David Huot (D-Laconia), an attorney and retired judge, cautioned the convention against acting without the advice of legal counsel. Representative Dennis Fields (R-Sanbornton), alone among the 13 Republicans who constitute a majority of the 18 members of the convention, balked, protesting that no notice was given that the issue would come before the meeting.
With no further debate, Tilton's motion carried by a vote of eleven-to-two and four abstentions, with eleven of the twelve Republicans present voting in favor and two of the five Democrats voting against. Fields and three Democrats abstained.
Likewise, on advice of bond counsel the convention reaffirmed the vote of its executive committee to authorize the county treasurer to borrow up to $10-million in anticipation of property taxes. Bond counsel was concerned that the suit filed by Tardif also clouded the election of the executive committee composed of Representatives Worsman, Tilton, Bob Greemore and Herb Vadney of Meredith, all Republicans.