Belknap Commission challenges delegation's legal authority to sue anybody

LACONIA — The attorney representing the Belknap County Commission has written to her counterpart representing the Belknap County Convention, which last month voted to petition the Belknap County Superior to resolve the dispute between the two over the county budget, questioning the authority of the convention to sue the commission.

Throughout the year 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.

In her letter Sharon Cuddy Somers of Donahue, Tucker & Ciandella, reminded David Horan that since July, when he was retained by the convention, she has twice asked him to explain the legal authority supporting the convention's position. Receiving no reply, she wrote "we can only assume that no such authority exists."

Furthermore, Somers noted that the prospect of litigation raises the question of whether the convention can bring legal actions and claimed that it has no such authority. The enumerated powers of the convention are prescribed by statute, but "nowhere does the statute indicate that the delegation (convention) may bring legal actions in court on behalf of the county, let alone against the county commissioners."

Likewise, Somers challenges the authority of the convention to retain and pay legal counsel. Although the authority to appropriate funds rests with the convention, the authority to enter contracts and approve expenditures rests with the commission. Before retaining Horan, the convention, without authorization from the commission, sought legal advice from the Mitchell Group, incurring a bill that has yet to be paid.

In closing, Somers advised Horan that the commissioners seek to avoid spending scarce public funds defending a lawsuit without merit, which the convention has no authority to initiate. Nevertheless, she continued "the commissioners will defend against the action and will seek to have those individuals who voted to proceed with the action be held personally responsible for attorney's fees and costs."

The vote to file suit was 10 to 4, with all 10 of the Republican members present voting in favor and all four of the Democratic members present voting against. Those in the majority were Representatives Colette Worsman, who chairs the convention, Bob Greemore and Herb Vadney of Meredith, Jane Cormier and Stephen Holmes of Alton, Guy Comtois of Barnstead, Chuck Fink and Mike Sylvia of Belmont, Richard Burchell of Gilmanton and Frank Tilton of Laconia. The four Democrats present were Lisa DiMartino of Gilford, Ruth Gulick of New Hampton, David Huot of Laconia and Ian Raymond of Sanbornton. Three Republicans — Don Flanders and Bob Luther of Laconia and Dennis Fields of Sanbornton — and one Democrat — Beth Arsenault of Laconia — were absent.