Democrats challenge budget vote by phone in court

LACONIA — The five Democratic members of the Belknap County Convention have asked Belknap County Superior Court to overturn the vote that thwarted adoption of the 2014 county budget recommended by the Belknap County Commission.

The vote was taken when the convention met in the midst of a heavy snowstorm on February 18. Only 13 of the 18 members were present when the meeting was convened a half-hour past the scheduled hour of 5 p.m. In addition, Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the convention, arranged for Rep. Guy Comtois (R-Barnstead), who was tending to a failing roof, to participate by telephone.

Noting the absence of several Republicans, Rep. Beth Arsenault (D-Laconia) offered a motion to adopt the commission's budget, which was second by Rep. Lisa DiMartino (D-Gilford). They were joined in support of the motion by their fellow Democrats — David Huot of Laconia, Ian Raymond of Sanbornton and Ruth Gulick of New Hampton — and two Republicans — Reps. Bob Luther and Don Flanders of Laconia.

The other six Republicans present — Reps. Richard Burchell of Gilamnton, Frank Tilton of Laconia, Michael Sylvia of Belmont and Bob Greemore, Herb Vadney and Worsman, all of Meredith — voted against the motion, along with Comtois, who voted by telephone.

With four Republicans — Reps. Dennis Fields of Sanbornton, Charles Fink of Belmont, and Stephen Holmes and Jane Cormier, both of Alton — absent, the convention deadlocked seven-to-seven and the motion failed.

The suit, naming Worsman and Cormier, the clerk of the convention, alleges that Worsman violated the provisions of the Right-to-Know Law bearing on members participating by telephone. The Democrats note that the convention was not required to allow one or members to participate by "electronic means" and claim the decision properly rested with the convention, not the chair. Moreover, they charge that no notice was given to the convention that Comtois would be permitted to participate by telephone nor was the reason he could not be physically present recorded in the minutes as the statute requires. Finally, contrary to the law, Comtois failed to identify anyone else present at the location from which he was participating.

Consequently, the Democrats claim that since "Rep. Comtois' vote was unlawful and in violation of RSA 91-A:2 " the vote should be overturned.

When the convention met last night (see story on page 1) Worsman sought to amend the minutes of meeting of February 18 to show that before the meeting was convened she and other members referred to the Right-to-Know law and discussed the procedure for allowing Comtois to participate by telephone. Huot reminded her that at the time there was no quorum and not all those who were present were party to the discussion. Arsenault questioned recording a discussion that took place before the meeting in the minutes.

"It's critical and germane," Worsman insisted with an apparent eye to the litigation.

When Worsman's motion to amend the minutes was put to a vote there was much confusion about who was and was not present when the supposed discussion occurred and therefore would be eligible to vote. Ultimately the motion failed five-to-four, with five abstentions.

Obviously troubled by the outcome Worsman tersely noted that the minutes were approved without reference to the discussion of the Right-to-Know law prior to the meeting.