Pass the hat: commission refuses to pay convention's legal bill

LACONIA — Belknap County Commissioners say they won't pay a $1,500 bill for legal services brought forward by the County Convention from the Mitchell Municipal Group of Laconia.
''It's not our bill. We had already hired an attorney,'' County Administrator Debra Shackett advised the commissioners Wednesday morning as they discussed what to do with the bill, which the Mitchell group had forwarded to the county on the instruction of County Convention Chairman Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith).
Shackett's words echoed the warning that Commissioner Ed Philpot gave to the convention in March when he said, "If the Mitchell Group presents us with an invoice, we would not pay it, because we did not hire the attorney."
Disregarding the advice, the convention instead voted to hire the Mitchell Group to defend itself against a lawsuit brought by former Laconia Mayor Tom Tardif, which charged that it had violated the state Right-to-Know Law by electing its officers by secret ballot last December.
Shortly after the suit was filed, the convention had sought permission from the commissioners, in whom state law vests the authority to engage and direct legal counsel representing the county, to hire its own attorney. Citing the statute, the commission refused the request but retained Paul Fitzgerald of the Wescott, Millham and Dyer law firm of Laconia, to defend the convention.
After the commissioners refused the convention's request, the convention appealed the denial to itself, and voted 10-7 to authorize Worsman to seek legal counsel. Both Laura Spector-Morgan of the Mitchell Municipal Group and Fitzgerald filed appearances in Belknap County Superior Court on behalf of the county with Spector-Morgan later withdrawing.
The issue Tardif raised was apparently resolved when the convention held a new election at which votes for the convention officers were made in public.
''I think it was pretty clear up front that we had already hired an attorney for the delegation,'' said Philpot, who said that the flip side is that the Mitchell Group had provided the services in good faith.
''When we tried to explain to the delegation that there had never been a question in the past about how this got handled, they wouldn't listen. It's just another example of the continued friction which resulted in yet another bill for taxpayers. It was unnecessary and is a bill the delegation members should pay,'' said Philpot.
Commissioner Steve Nedeau said that the Mitchell bill isn't the only one for legal services the county faces, pointing out that the convention has hired another attorney to represent it in potential legal action against the commissioners over who has control over line items in the county budget.
''The chairman of the convention was down in Concord soliciting attorneys for that suit,'' said Nedeau, who said that the commission needs to be consistent in the way it handles its differences with the convention which may result in legal bills.
Last month the convention voted nine-to-seven, with two members absent, to retain attorney David Horan, a former assistant county attorney in Hillsborough County, to represent it in its dispute with the commission over the respective authority of the two bodies over the management of the county budget.
Last week the convention had a ''non-meeting'' in Concord to discuss legal matters but cancelled a planned public meeting which was to follow that session because it had not been posted far enough in advance to satisfy state law.
Shackett said that there is another legal bill as well, from Belknap County Register of Deeds Barbara Luther, for $5,200 for legal fees she incurred defending her office in a court action brought by commissioners to compel her office to comply with a change in accounting procedures which had been recommended by in an audit. The commission has not paid the bill even though the convention placed a line item for $5,200 in the county budget earlier this year for that purpose.