LACONIA — A divided Belknap County Convention has rejected a move by its leadership to take its ongoing dispute with the Belknap County Commission over budget matters to court, turning down a motion to file a lawsuit against the commission by an 8-9 vote.
Voting for court action Monday night were Convention Chairman Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), Vice Chairman Rep. Robert Greemore (R-Meredith) and Convention Clerk Rep. Jane Cormier (R-Alton). Joining the leadership were Reps. Guy Comtois (R-Barnstead), Charles Fink (R-Belmont), Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton), Michael Sylvia (R-Belmont), and Stephen Holmes (R-Alton)
All the convention members from Laconia, Republicans Don Flanders, Frank Tilton, Bob Luther and Democrat David Huot opposed the motion. They were joined by Democrats Ruth Gulick from New Hampton, Ian Raymond of Sanbornton and Lisa DiMartino from Gilford, as well as Republicans Dennis Fields of Sanbornton and Herb Vadney from Meredith. Rep. Beth Arsenault (D-Laconia, Belmont) was not present.
The vote came following a closed-door non-meeting the convention held Monday night with Attorney David Horan, who was hired by the convention in April to represent it in its ongoing dispute with county commissioners over budget line-item authority. Commissioners have maintained that they have authority to transfer money from accounts within departmental budgets as long as the amount expended doesn't exceed the bottom line for each department as approved by the convention. The convention maintains that it has authority over each line item and that funds cannot be transferred, even within departments, without their permission.
Worsman defended the attempt to take the commissioners to court, saying: ''At every meeting we have had with them they have shown and said they have no interest in abiding by the vote of the convention.''
She said that she had no idea how the impasse over budget authority would be resolved now that the court action is, for the present, off the table. ''Perhaps they (the commissioners) will have an epiphany,'' said Worsman.
The dispute was triggered by changes made to budget line items by commissioners after the convention cut $600,000 from the $26.7 million budget the commissioners had proposed. Commissioners have maintained that the transfers were made in order to meet contractual obligations for employee benefits, including health insurance, which had been cut in the delegation's budget.
Worsman has charged that since then over 90 accounts have been changed by the commission without any attempt to have the transfers approved by the convention's Executive Committee, as was required in the motion approving the $26,184,616 budget in March.
On Monday, meeting prior to the convention meeting, the Executive Committee turned down two of three budget transfer requests made by the commission, including one which would have increased the amount of funds available to pay for convention meetings from now until the end of the year from $3,500 to $8,000.
Tilton, Executive Committee chairman, said that he voted against taking action in court at the present time but said that doesn't rule out revisiting that decision in the future.
''I totally agree that those were inappropriate expenditures and that the commission violated the law. But I really don't want to go to court and incur legal fees. I think we should give it 60 days to see if we can get some resolution,'' said Tilton.
He noted that two current members of the commission, Chairman John Thomas (R-Belmont) and Steve Nedeau (R-Meredith) have served as County Convention chairmen in the past and that both served on the Executive Committee and required approval for the transfer of sums as small as $12 which were sought by Belknap County Commissioners.
''There's a new budget cycle coming up in December. Unless the commission comes to terms with us it's going to be very difficult for them to come before us and ask for money in line items and then spend it elsewhere,'' said Tilton.
Vadney, who is a member of the executive committee, said that he voted not to going to court at this time because he thinks some kind of compromise agreement can be reached with the commission and there is still plenty of time before the next budget cycle begins.
''There certainly has to be some recognition by the commissioners that the county convention oversees that the budget process could become even more messy than it has been this year unless some understanding is reached within the next few months,'' said Vadney.
Huot said that he didn't like the non-meeting aspect of Monday's proceedings, saying that, while the procedure is legal, it defeats the purpose of the right-to-know law that the public's business should be conducted in open sessions.
He said that those supporting court action don't seem to realize that they can't get a quick opinion on what procedures should be followed with respect to the budget process.
''When you go to court you have got to consider what you can ask the court to do in terms of relief. State laws aren't clear on county government and are sometimes contradictory. It's like county government is more or less an after thought and it was left to the individual counties. County conventions have never been involved in day-to-day running of county government, but instead have general oversight of the budget,'' said Huot.
He said that any Superior Court decision can only be guided by state statutes, which could mean lengthy litigation, not a quick ruling, and pointed out that there would be no guidance from the Superior Court on the issues involved as only the state Supreme Court can issue advisory opinions.
Huot said the best solution would be to work out the differences through the political process and that ultimately legislation which would clearly delineate the responsibilities and duties of the convention and the commissioners should be passed.