Published DateLACONIA — For a second time, the Belknap County Convention last night elected its officers for 2013-2014, effectively conceding, as Tom Tardif and Dave Gammon charged, that the original election in December by secret paper ballot violated the N.H. Right-to-Know law.
Referring to the first election, Representative Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who was then elected to chair the convention, remarked "of course that was not appropriate."
Tardif and Gammon brought suit against the convention in Belknap County Superior Court. There is no basis in New Hampshire law for conducting any secret ballot vote during a meeting of a public board and that, in fact, RSA 91-A, specially prohibits such a practice.
In December, Worsman was elected over fellow Republican Rep. Frank Titlon (Laconia) by a vote of 9-7. It was not announced now individual representatives had voted.
Convention members claimed they were following the advice of the clerk of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, who cited an opinion issued by the state Supreme Court in 1971, before the Right-to-Know law was enacted, advising the House that it was entitled to elect its own speaker by secret ballot.
The decision to hold a fresh election was taken on the advice of several attorneys consulted by Worsman, who told her that since Tardif and Gammon asked the court to order a second election in accordance with the law, doing so would likely persuade the court to dismiss their suit.
This time, there again were two candidates for chairman — Worsman and Representative David Huot, a Laconia Democrat. Worsman prevailed by a vote of 12 to 5, as Representative Bob Luther (R-Laconia) was the lone Republican to join the four Democrats in support of Huot. Representative Bob Greemore (R-Meredith) was elected vice-chairman, winning over Huot, by the same margin, with Luther, who nominated Huot, again breaking ranks.
Elected clerk in December, Representative Dennis Fields (R-Sanbornton) proved a persistent critic of Worsman's leadership throughout the stormy budget process and paid the price. Nominated by Rep. Beth Arsenault (D-Laconia), Fields won the votes of the four Democrats and two Republicans — Luther and Representative Don Flanders of Laconia — but lost to freshman Rep. Jane Cormier of Alton, 11 to 6.
The convention elected four members to join the officers on the executive committee, which regularly reviews the budget, approves transfers of funds and withdrawals from contingency and recommends the salaries of elected officials — the county attorney, sheriff and register of deeds. Flanders led the field with 15 votes, followed by Reps. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) and Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) with a dozen apiece. With nine votes, Representative Guy Comtois (R-Alton) edged Huot by two votes to claim the fourth seat and ensure that the committee consists solely of Republicans.
Following the election, the convention discussed the Right-to-Know litigation in a non-public session and afterwards settled a dispute with the Belknap County Commission by agreeing, with Rep. Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton) casting the lone dissenting vote, to be represented by attorney Paul Fitzgerald.
Shortly after the suit was filed, Worsman asked the commission, which by statute is authorized to retain and pay legal counsel to represent the county, to permit the convention to hire outside counsel. The commissioners refused the request but said they had retained Fitzgerald to defend the convention.
Worsman said that a majority of the convention believed Fitzgerald had "a tremendous conflict of interest." She said that Huot's son Matt, worked at Fitzgerald's law firm and the commission had "asked Fitzgerald for information about the direction the convention was taking. I'm not confident," she continued, "that the convention's best interests are aligned with those of the commission and his allegiance is with the commission, not the convention."
Enter Burchell, who applied a law bearing on the indemnification of county officials sued while acting within the scope of their official duties. It provides that "if no other representation is provided," which can only be arranged with the approval of the commission, the county attorney, or with the consent of the commission, outside counsel shall provide their defense. The law further provides that officials denied representation by the commissioners may appeal to the convention.
The convention proceeded to appeal the commission's decision to itself and when it met on March 4 and resolved 11 to 6, with one member absent, to hire independent legal counsel and authorized Worsman to approach the Mitchell Municipal Group.
Worsman indicated that the County Attorney Melissa Gulbrandsen was the first choice of the majority of the convention because it was cost effective from a taxpayer's perspective. However, Gulbrandsen told the members that she found herself "in an awkward position between the two arguing bodies" and concluded it would not not be appropriate for her to represent the convention.
Instead, the convention retained Laura Spector-Morgan of the Mitchell Municipal Group. But, upon discovering that the commission is not only authorized to retain legal counsel but also to approve all county expenditures, leaving the convention without either the authority or the means to pay her fee, she withdrew. Her withdrawal prompted the convention, with some reluctance, to turn to Fitzgerald.