LACONIA — The Belknap County Convention and Belknap County Commission moved a step nearer taking their differences to court after officials of the two bodies remained at loggerheads following a private meeting in the presence of their attorneys last Friday.
"It is sad and unfortunate we found no common ground," Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the convention, wrote in an e-mail to her 17 colleagues on Sunday afternoon. "So now our next step is to move forward to let the courts decide."
Worsman, along with Representatives Frank Tilton (R-Laconia), chairman of the Executive Committee of the convention and Jane Cormier (R-Alton), clerk of the convention, met with Commissioner John Thomas (R-Belmont), chairman of the commission, County Administrator Debra Shackett and County Finance Director Glen Waring. Attorneys David Horan, representing the convention, and Sharon Somers and Robert Derosier, representing the commission, were also present.
The purpose of the meeting, Worsman explained in her e-mail, was "to see if we could find some common ground regarding the budget, spending and if executive approval is or is not necessary for the 90+ fund transfers that have been made including now in excess of $25,000 out of the contingency fund."
Throughout the 2013 budget process the Republican majority of the convention has insisted that the convention can rewrite the budget proposed by the commission by adding or deleting, raising or lowering appropriations for particular line items. And, in the course of managing the budget, the commission may only reallocate funds from one line to another with the approval of the Executive Committee of the convention.
With equal resolve the commissioners claim that the authority of the convention is limited to itemizing appropriations in 13 categories accord with the "Statement of County Appropriations and Revenue as Voted," or MS-42 form, submitted to the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration. Within these categories, the commission contends it can distribute funds among different lines without the approval of the convention as long as expenditures do not exceed the total appropriations of the particular categories.
"The commissioners position," Worsman told members of the convention after the meeting, "is that they can spend money any way they so long as they don't exceed the bottom line. This obviously clashes with the many votes taken by the convention that will heavily affect the 12014 budget."
Last week's meeting stemmed from correspondence that began in June when Horan wrote to Thomas informing him that the commission had changed the amounts the convention budgeted in 91 separate line items and added dollar amounts to lines the convention left blank without seeking the approval of either the convention or its Executive Committee. He asked that the commission "immediately cease spending money from budget lines where zero money was appropriated, comply with the budget adopted by the convention and submit written requests to the Executive Committee for all transfers. He noted that the Executive Committee was meeting on June 24 and asked the commissioners to reply before the meeting.
Nearly a month later, Somers replied on behalf of the commission and refused to yeild an inch. "Having reviewed your points," she began, "I believe and have advised the commission that your conclusions are not supported by New Hampshire law and that . . . the commissioners have acted correctly, prudently and legally." Somers closed by remarking that commissioners wish "to move past this current impasse" and proposed that the chairman, vice-chairman and clerk of the convention, together with one of its five Democratic members, meet with Shackett and Waring.
Rep. David Huot (D-Laconia) was troubled by news of the meeting. "The convention voted to hire an attorney and vote to authorize Colette (Worsman) to be the contact person," he told The Daily Sun. "But, we never voted to authorize her to hold private meetings. What upset me the most," he continued, "was that we weren't told about the meeting until after the fact."
Huot said that he was "disappointed" that Worsman chose Tilton and Cormier to represent the convention without considering any other Republicans and "shut the Democrats out of the governing process altogether." He said that he believes neither the convention nor the commission is "100-percent right" and suggested his perspective should be represented.
Worsman told The Daily Sun that those who attended the meeting on Friday were carefully chosen to ensure a private meeting that did not contravene the "Right-to-Know" law. She said that she invited Tllton because he chairs the Executive Committee, which oversees the administration of the budget, and Cormier, who as clerk could take minutes if necessary.
"I can't help the fact that there are 13 Republicans and five Democrats on the delegation," Worsman said. "I can't change the facts."
Responding to misgivings expressed by Huot and Rep. Ruth Gulick (D-New Hampton) in an e-mail chain, Rep. Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton) wrote, "Republicans do not get to whine in Concord when things do not go their way which is virtually always. What gives anyone the right to complain about the very open process which has been used in the county delegation?" To Huot he wrote, "Get a subpoena."
Worsman said that she was concerned that Huot provided her e-mail to members of the convention to the press, claiming that because it was copied to Horan it was a protected communication between client and attorney.
Although Worsman indicated in her e-mail that the convention would file suit, she declined to comment to the newspaper what steps the convention would take next. Instead, she said that the convention has taken no decisions and will be consulting with its legal counsel. "This is tremendously unfortunate," she said. "It saddens me that we need to protect the taxpayers of Belknap County."